Sunday, January 22, 2017

What is Geolibertarianism? (Expanded)

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Gary Johnson and the FairTax
2. Libertarian Tax Principles
3. Georgist Tax Principles
4. The Basics of Georgism
5. Georgism, Advanced
6. The Geo-Libertarian Synthesis
7. Georgism as Libertarian
8. Thomas Paine's Citizens' Dividend
9. Taxation and Social Welfare
10. The Geo-Painean-Friedmanite Synthesis
11. Conclusion: Social Welfare Programs


1. Introduction: Gary Johnson and the FairTax

      The Libertarian Party needs a tax policy.

      In 2016, the party's presidential nominee Gary Johnson advocated the FairTax. Under this proposal, the federal tax on individual income would be replaced by a nationwide value-added tax on consumption; a 23% tax (paid by the customer) on all goods sold nationwide, functioning the same way that state and local sales taxes do.
      Since about half of federal revenues derive from taxes on individual income, it's possible that if the sales tax rate could be doubled (to 46%), capital gains taxes, estate taxes, and gift taxes, and maybe other types of taxes as well, could become unnecessary, in addition to personal income taxes (of course, few libertarians - and few followers of Henry George's Single Tax philosophy - would support prohibiting voluntary donations to government paid from charges on earned income, sales, capital gains, etc.).
      During the 2016 campaign, on Chris Cuomo's CNN show, Gary Johnson answered concerns that the FairTax proposal is regressive (despite the plan's “prebate” which would compensate consumers for their purchases). Additionally, John Oliver criticized Johnson for declining to go into enough detail about whether the FairTax's “prebate” is a welfare program.
      It seems that the public and the media are not quite ready for the FairTax. Judging by Johnson's disappointing 3% vote in the 2016 presidential election (after sustaining 5-9% polling averages, and even registering as high as 13% in one poll, all still short of the 15% threshold to get into the debates), party members themselves might be ready to move on to better tax policies as well.
      Given the misinformation and contentiousness surrounding Johnson's candidacy and surrounding the FairTax, it might behoove the party to consider tax policies that are different from the FairTax, but which still retain its intent and spirit. A new tax policy should ask the same question that inspired the FairTax: “Which behaviors ought to be taxed in the first place?”

2. Libertarian Tax Principles

      The tax-skeptical party that we are, we go back to first principles. Our members might be likely to advocate funding government entirely from voluntary contributions, others from user fees, perhaps others want to keep income taxes but allow individuals to choose which spending items to pay for.
      Others simply want whichever tax policy will place the lowest burden on people who engage in productive economic behavior. We understand that income taxes and sales taxes are really taxes on earning money and taxes on buying and selling (respectively). We also understand that when you tax an activity, you risk discouraging that behavior if you impose too high a tax rate. This is because high tax rates can deter people from engaging in the activity that is being taxed.
Hence, each kind of tax has the effect of penalizing and deterring the activity that it taxes. The result is that when you tax income and sales, less people are working and earning money, and less trade is taking place because fewer things are being bought and sold.
Art Laffer, former economic adviser to Ronald Reagan, theorized what is called the “Laffer curve”. The Laffer curve is essentially a bell curve, plotted on a graph; a graph in which the X-axis depicts rates of income or productivity, while the Y-axis depicts tax rate percentages.
Laffer hypothesized that some nominal tax rate might exist, which, if applied, would allow the government to take as much revenue as possible from our paychecks, without risking making us quit our jobs altogether because we can't afford to pay taxes at rates any higher than they already are.
       The pervasiveness of the sentiment that we're “taxed enough already” - and a new political environment that firmly believes that too much regulation and taxation stymies production and growth - suggest that Laffer's concern is valid. Some among us might even believe that the Laffer curve peaks at zero; which is to say that any percentage tax rate - even 1% - at least somewhat deters a person from engaging in taxed behaviors.
      That's why it's important for us to ask ourselves how to ow do we adopt a tax policy that satisfies the concerns of all members of the party, while making sure that the people who actually deserve to be “punished” (with these punitive taxes) are the ones that will bear the burden of federal taxes?

3. Georgist Tax Principles

If taxes do punish, then they should be levied with intent to punish. Understanding this could lead to a society where the people who pay for government, are criminals - those who destroy lands, restrict access to vast areas, rob us of our natural rights, waste our tax dollars, and enrich themselves through cronyism - while the people who reap the rewards are, by large, innocent civilians who engage in little or no economic activity which harms anybody else.
      The key to achieving that kind of society is to “tax bads, not goods”; that is, fund government through imposing intentionally deterrent, quasi-punitive fines on wasteful behaviors, not through imposing “taxes” on productive economic behavior that harms nobody and steals nobody's property.
      But taxing waste is precisely the issue; the FairTax taxes consumption. And so, we must ask, do we want to tax consumption? Do we risk discouraging people from buying things; from using the products they want to buy, including eating the foods they want to buy? Why should we be taxing economic activity at all? Shouldn't we tax luxury items before we tax ordinary consumer goods? Isn't conspicious (excessive) consumption a more waste-like activity to tax instead of taxing all sales nationwide?
      That's why “tax bads, not goods” and “tax land, not man” are some of the slogans of the Georgists (also called Geoists). Georgists are students of 19th-century American economist Henry George, whose 1871 book Progress and Poverty influenced the development of philosophy and policy concerning property rights, taxation, environment, economics, and other topics.
      Some of George's modern-day admirers have created a hybrid “geo-libertarianism”, integrating George's libertarian communalist philosophy into the broader ethics and politics of libertarianism, bringing George's “Single Tax” (or Land Value Taxation) together with a die-hard support for civil liberties, and a desire to decentralize government towards local communities.

4. The Basics of Georgism

      While adherents to the Libertarian Party's platform are, for the most part, known as strong supporters of private property, Georgists want most land held in common (with open access), but with communally recognized private property rights. However, Georgists and geo-libertarians want intentionally deterrent fines to be imposed on people who have full private property ownership rights, including the right to exclude others from their land.
       Henry George's philosophy is known by many names: Georgism, Geonomics, Land Value Taxation or location value taxation (L.V.T.), split-rate taxation, two-rate taxation, two-tier taxation, or "the Single Tax". The Single Tax is a policy that funds government entirely through taxes on land; specifically, through taxes on the non-improvement of land, collected as land rents. Despite the "Single Tax" term, taxes on the non-improvement of land actually include multiple different types of taxation. This is because the full economic definition of land includes space, air, water, raw materials, mineral deposits, parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, and other natural resources that exist in fixed supply.
The more libertarian among the geo-libertarians might argue in favor of limiting the types of behavior which the perhaps deceptively-named Single Tax might apply, but to fail to fully tax all behaviors, goods, and services which fall under the full economic definition of land (which includes raw materials, and does not include land not yet capitalized) would likely mean deserting George's vision to some degree.
A full “Single Tax” could potentially involve imposing monetary penalties upon: 1) the hoarding of landed property; 2) the enclosure of common lands; 3) emission of pollutants, potentially including the emission of carbon; 4) the extraction of natural resources without compensating neighbors or the community; 5) allowing land to become unusable and fall into disuse, disrepair, or blight; and / or 6) failure to homestead, otherwise sustainably develop, and demonstrate sufficiently frequent and active use of the land.
      The main revenue sources of a hybrid geo-libertarian tax policy would most likely be: 1) (as much revenue as possible from) voluntary contributions (from whatever sources); 2) (most of the remaining revenue) from user fees (through running as many government services as possible on fee-for-service models); and 3) taxes on land (funding whatever constitutional and necessary programs cannot be funded through donations and user fees.
      It's important to keep in mind that not all Georgists want to abolish the individual income tax, corporate income and capital gains taxes, and sales taxes. Of course, neither Georgists nor libertarians could rationally argue against abolishing voluntary donations to government from any of these sources. Despite those facts, it's not unreasonable to suggest that taxing solely land should logically involve eliminating (mandatory) personal income taxes, sales taxes, luxury taxes, capital gains and corporate income, estate taxes, and gift taxes. However, personal or corporate income from land sales, and gifts and bequeathing of land, might also be taxed. These provisos should provide plenty of room for negotiation with parties representing a host of different ideologies.

5. Georgism, Advanced

      An extensive application of Georgism might even include something like a carbon tax, but if each community could develop its own method of taxing pollution, then these communities could have a chance to convince urban and suburban communities not to adopt the United Nations carbon taxation plan.
      While this might sound unusual or risky - maybe to the more conservative members of the L.P. - taxing non-improvement of land could turn property taxes on their head, making it unnecessary to tax property value, freeing people to make unlimited improvements to their own property without paying taxes to the community (as long as the improvements are sustainable).
As a side note, in addition to George's demands, adherents of the property philosophies of John Locke and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon would likely promote punitive measures against property owners who do nothing to physically protect and secure their land, and instead rely on government to do it for them instead.
Additionally, these property owners - "absentee property owners" - rely on government to make land artificially scarce, resulting in takings of common lands that drive populations into urban centers, conscripting the people into the reserve army of labor, so that they are artificially impoverished through deprivation of natural rights, and are forced to compete for artificially scarce resources. This competition in the job market is not limited to the profession of working as a security guard to protect and defend someone's private property.

6. The Geo-Libertarian Synthesis

      But the geo-libertarians simply want to realize George's vision of ending taxes on all forms of labor (like personal income taxes), ending taxes on all forms of capital (like sales, capital gains, and taxes on profits), and taxing the waste and destruction of landed property, instead of taxing productive and sustainable improvements to landed property.
      Such a policy would render about 90% of current revenue sources obsolete. It would shrink the tax burden of renters, low-income workers, and ordinary consumers to practically zero; causing the burden of funding government to fall mainly upon the wealthiest of landed property owners, and the companies that release the most pollutants into common land, water, and air.
      This policy would ensure that the people who deserve to be punished by taxes - the beneficiaries of government protection of landed property (in addition to other artificial, taxpayer-funded privileges which destroy true free market conditions) – are the ones being punished. Additionally, this policy would minimally interrupt ordinary production and trade (aside from land); like sales, the earning of income, the earning of dividends through investment, and sustainable improvements to one's landed property (however, as one small possible downside, community governments' roles in mediating the sale and transfer of landed property would increase).
      The Land Value Taxation rate could even be set at a fixed number – maybe the same 23% as the FairTax; or maybe another number, maybe reflecting a very different budget – so Georgism would likely satisfy those in the L.P. who desire flat tax rates.

7. Georgism as Libertarian

      Without government taxing the income and purchases of ordinary people, prosperity would likely rapidly increase among low-income people. Social welfare programs could become unnecessary, making it possible to eliminate the majority of the activities of the Internal Revenue Service, focusing it on the taxation of non-improvement to landed property.
      Aside from simplifying the tax code and scaling back the affairs of the I.R.S., Georgists and Libertarian Party members might also choose to embark upon any or all of the following: 1) scale down the affairs of the Department of the Interior and bureaus of land management; 2) loosen requirements to claim homesteading, such as demonstration of exclusion and duration of occupancy; 3) pass homesteading tax credits at all levels of government, credits which are applicable to apartments, trailers, and small homes; 4) urge the federal and state governments to sell and grant public lands to local governments, potentiating more land sales to citizens; and 5) passing a new Homestead Act, allowing each resident to claim up to 7 or 8 acres of land.
      But perhaps the most important way to test the viability of a geo-libertarian alliance will be to see where libertarians and Georgists agree about what to tax, why we should be taxing it, and how much it should be taxed.

8. Thomas Paine's Citizens' Dividend

      In 1998, a group of libertarian Georgists called the Thomas Paine Caucus hosted a booth at that year's Libertarian Party convention in Washington, D.C.. Some members of the caucus were also members of the Libertarian Party, while others were not.1 The caucus's efforts to get the L.P. to accept its land rights platform were derailed, so as a result, the party has perhaps paid less attention to Paine - and to George - than it should.
In Common Sense, Paine explained that each of us deserves compensation for being deprived of the natural right to inherit and fully own landed private property, we begin to understand that if we want our government to perform basic functions like zoning and recognizing exclusive property titles, then we should be free to have private property; we should be free to claim an area of land commensurate with world land divided by world population.
      But we should also be free to choose monetary compensation instead of landed private property. Paine advocates a citizens' dividend; similar plans are called residents' dividends, sovereign wealth funds (such as the Alaska Permanent Fund), and the kind of universal basic income guarantees advocated by libertarian Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute (and many on the left, and in Europe).
      If you think about it, the idea of cash payouts to citizens, may not be too far off from the FairTax's “prebate”, which would compensate consumers up to several thousands of dollars for paying taxes on everything they buy in a given year.

9. Taxation and Social Welfare

Despite the suggestions of John Oliver and others, a “prebate” isn't exactly a social welfare program. Citizens' dividends and basic income guarantees don't have to be run like social welfare programs either.
As libertarians, we interpret the Constitution's General Welfare Clause, and the direct tax and capitation clauses, to suggest that taxes and spending should impact all citizens universally, and equally, with spending benefiting everyone.
Given these principles, a prebate, basic income, or citizens' dividend should only be passed if it leaves more money in the hands of ordinary people, so that they can buy in the market what those tax dollars previously paid for. The idea is to shrink spending and revenues, and return those revenues to everyone in the form of cash payouts.
      Truthfully, any basic income program, citizens' dividend, sovereign wealth fund, or Negative Income Tax -type program, could easily be implemented and administered in a way that ensures that as flat as possible tax rates - and the tax burden in general - fall equally upon those who can afford it (i.e., those above the poverty line); while ensuring that each citizen receive an equal share of the government's cash payout (and / or land-gift), as long as they are not a beneficiary of government land protection.

10. The Geo-Painean-Friedmanite Synthesis

      Out of the debate between FairTax and Negative Income Tax proponents, and basic income advocates, has come the suggestion of a “Geo-Painean-Friedmanite Caucus” in the party; one which unites the ideas of Henry George and Thomas Paine, with those of Milton Friedman.
      Friedman supported the Negative Income Tax, though he did not originate it. Daniel Moynihan and Sargent Shriver advocated for the passage of similar legislation, while presidents Johnson and Nixon considered similar measures.
      The Negative Income Tax aims to eliminate the "poverty trap" created by rules that cut people off from social welfare benefits when they start working, thus removing the monetary incentive to work rather than stay on welfare. The N.I.T.'s solution is to flatly tax people above the poverty line (or some nearby amount), while paying "negative taxes" (i.e., rebates) to people below the poverty line.
In a 1968 interview with William F. Buckley, Friedman defended the Negative Income Tax. He gave as an example a 50% negative tax for those below the poverty line; explaining that everyone below the poverty line would receive half of the difference between the poverty line and their annual income.
Friedman described it essentially as a flat tax which is not regressive, but which is effectively progressive because the “negative tax” (read: payout to people below the poverty line or some other income threshold) would be redistributed from the rich, who would pay the same flat tax rate on all the taxable productive behaviors in which they engage.
That would go regardless of whether that would involve keeping the current tax code, or whether the code were totally overhauled; this fact could allows some wiggle room for compromise on probably almost all forms of taxation.
      Additionally, to exempt low-income earners from having to pay the Negative Income Tax, and to relieve the tax burden of those who own the smallest areas of land, could both be described as plans to compensate ordinary residents for the taking of their property; both administered as flat taxes with exemptions for those below a certain level of property earning or ownership.
And there's nothing left or right about government compensating the people for the illegal theft of their property rights, whether you want to call that "redistribution" or a "welfare program" or just call it what it is, which is shrinking government and giving it back to the people (as money and/or land rights), while restoring reason to the tax code.
      Some of the more conservative members of the Libertarian Party might criticize such proposals as advocating “redistribution”, “bleeding-heart” policies, or “leftism”. But given our belief that most taxation resembles theft, and the fact that the First Amendment recognizes the natural right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, Libertarians shouldn't rule-out all proposals that would put cash directly in the hands of the people.
      We the People have no duty to forgive the federal government for the self-defeating, unjustly punitive tax policies which it has administered since the Founding. Government and its cronies should be found guilty of legitimized unconstitutional mass-scale theft of wealth and property rights; and the rewards should go to every resident under federal jurisdiction.
      That's why we should continue to consider sales tax prebates, negative income tax payouts, basic income proposals, the citizens' dividend, and the sovereign wealth fund; that's because any one of these proposals could result in payouts that are parts of a long-overdue civil settlement between the people and their government.
      Many L.P. members and Georgists would probably agree that the federal government should pay compensatory damages to its victims (We the People). We might argue about how much we can trust the states on land issues, and about whether people should have a choice between receiving land and money. But what is clear is that, if all “social welfare programs” keep people in poverty, then none of the reforms mentioned herein are social welfare programs.

11. Conclusion

      A new synthesis is emerging. It is a synthesis that wants decentralized community control over land, environment, and tax policy; that wants to simplify the tax code and avoid deterring economic growth; and that recognizes that government largesse has enriched its cronies with taxpayer funds through artificially limiting the ability to buy and afford land, and that due to the injustice which maintaining these institutional, market-distorting privileges perpetuates, residents are owed reparations: reparations in the form of increased personal liberty, more localized control, and choice between free land and free money.
      Libertarians would do well to draw inspiration from Paine, Friedman, and George, in order to formulate new, innovative proposals of sweeping reforms to (and overhauls and simplifications of) the existing tax code. They must be proposals that face modern economic realities, and plan to do something about the artificial scarcity and artificially inflated prices and taxes of landed property. Thus, followers of the teachings of Henry George should remain forever welcome in the Libertarian Party, and their advice and concerns on taxation and environmental policies should always be heeded.
      Given the attraction of some Green Party members to Georgism and similar proposals, convergence upon geo-libertarianism may even prove to be a strategy for aligning many of the goals of the Libertarian Party and the Green Party; and with them, Debbie Dooley's Green Tea Party, the Tea Party movement of the American right, the Constitution Party, socialist parties, and other independent parties and activist movements.
      The Libertarian Party must be careful to avoid embracing the capitalism and mercantilism of the traditional American right, and instead embrace true free enterprise, heterodox economics, and a critique of capitalism from a position that values property rights. That's why Georgism, the ideas of John Locke, and the influence of Proudhon, Friedman, Paine, and many modern libertarian authors concerned about welfare matters (such as Charles Murray) will and should remain important influences on the party for generations to come.
      We should also keep our minds open to new ways to put into full practice all of our principles on taxes; aiming to craft a tax policy that is fair and equal, and one that affords as much freedom to the taxpayer as possible. Most importantly, we must craft a tax policy that holds government, and its largest polluting and land-hoarding beneficiaries, responsible, for shouldering the burden of funding government. We must levy fines that punish crime, not fees and taxes that deter people from working, trading, and engaging in productive activities that harm nobody.
      To do the opposite is to continue to grow government; to enrich cronies; to make land more expensive; and to keep the poor in poverty. It is to continue down the same path that has given innumerable unsustainable budget deals and irrational forms of taxation.
      Without access to land, and the ability to derive productive value through the use of natural resources, productivity is difficult for most people. As a result, trade, currency, and competition for resources, are all prevalent, when they would most likely not exist if each person were capable of sustaining himself. Poverty and dependence go hand-in-hand; this is what libertarians, conservatives, and Georgists all want to address.
      That's why the Libertarian Party should not shy away from making tentative alliances with those slightly to the party's left, nor should the L.P. shy away from the party of free land and free money.

1. "Libertarian Outreach Successful" (about the Thomas Paine Caucus at the 1998 L.P. convention):

Written on January 22nd, 2017

Edited on January 23rd, 24th, and 29th, 2017

Edited and Expanded on January 25th and February 18th, 2017

See other articles on this blog about Geolibertarianism here:


  1. Ehhh ... I'm a geo-libertarian, and I'm not crazy about the explanation given here. It may just be semantics, but I get the sense the author might not fully understand georgism. For another perspective:

    Here's a pretty good video for anyone with time:

  2. ^ That said, thanks to the author who wrote this, and keep it up. It's possible I'm just getting the wrong understanding of your understanding because of some of the wording used. Best.

  3. Thanks for the encouragement. I've been told that I explain left-leaning ideas with free-market rhetoric, so a lot of the terminology used will probably be different from that of Georgists. I'd be glad to consider any tips or critiques you have about the wording I used or anything else mentioned.