Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Culter on the Single Tax and The Hebrew Bible

Joshua Cutler, University of Houston, C.T. Bauer College of Business, has posted A Hebrew Republic in the Gilded Age? Henry George’s Single Tax and the Hebrew Bible:
Henry George (NYPL)
Henry George sparked a vast popular movement following the publication of his classic work Progress and Poverty. Seeking to explain why poverty always seemed to increase along with progress, George proposed that, as societies advanced, land owners were able to capture an increasing share of wealth. To remedy this, George proposed a “Single Tax” on the unimproved value of land, which would prevent land speculation and hoarding and make land available for all who desired to work it. While George was ostensibly an economist, he is best understood as an ethical-religious figure, and his most devoted followers were a diverse array of religious leaders and reformers. However, the actual religious substance of George’s ideas has been largely unexplored. I propose that George’s program was inspired by Jewish ideas and institutions originating from the Hebrew Bible. In Hebraic thought, by virtue of creating the earth, God is the only rightful owner of land. This principle was embodied in the Hebrew Bible’s land laws that ordained an equal distribution of land along with institutions to maintain this distribution over time. Centuries before George, I discuss how medieval Jewish rabbis had already derived a taxing power from the Hebraic land laws. These biblical land laws would also come to have a strong influence on European political thought through an intellectual tradition known as the “Hebrew Republic.” I attempt to understand Henry George’s thought as an unwitting revival of this tradition, with his Single Tax as an innovative adaption of the Hebraic institutions. The Hebraic understanding of land ownership continues to offer potential inspiration for alternative systems of taxation and economic regulation.
–Dan Ernst