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Since the economic crisis, people have become increasingly aware of the unfairness of our current tax system. Tax avoidance by corporations and the super-rich gives the appearance that paying tax is an optional extra, whilst low-paid workers have no choice in the matter.
There’s a subsequent desire to come up with forms of tax that are fair, asking most from those who have most, providing the resources needed to fund decent public services.
Church Action on Poverty is currently bringing the debate to towns and cities up and down the country through its Tax Justice tour.
For Christians, and all people of faith, there could hardly be a fairer tax than a land tax. If we believe that the earth was created for everybody to share equally, it is hard to justify a small elite benefiting exclusively from large parts of it.
In the UK, land ownership is more heavily concentrated in the hands of a wealthy few than it is in many developing countries. 69 per cent of Britain’s land is owned by less than one per cent of the population. Much of that 69 per cent is in the hands of the aristocracy, which means the current owners have inherited it: ownership is not a result of their own endeavours.
As John Stuart Mill said: "Landlords grow rich in their sleep without working, risking or economising. The increase in the value of land, arising as it does from the efforts of an entire community, should belong to the community and not to the individual who might hold title."
(Political Economy (1848), Book V, Chap. 2, Sec. 5)
A prime example of the way landowners can grow immensely rich through the efforts of others is the Duke of Westminster’s family. According to his estate’s website, ‘The family's ownership of the London Estate dates back to the marriage of Mary Davies to Sir Thomas Grosvenor in 1677. Mary inherited an area known as the Five Fields (500 acres situated north of the Thames and to the west of the City of London) which today are occupied by Mayfair, Belgravia and Pimlico.’
The family sold Pimlico in 1953, but the value of their remaining London estate has soared over time, due to the success of London as a global city, the building of roads, airports and other publicly-funded infrastructure, and the talents and creativity of its citizens.
If we wish to retain the right to private ownership of land, then we need a way to ensure that the community shares in the benefits. A land tax would do this by being levied on the value of the land in its natural state, excluding crops, buildings, or other improvements, so it is only the land that is taxed, not the work of the owners. It neatly addresses the problem of tax avoidance: the rich can move their money around the world, but a country estate or a city centre cannot be hidden from the tax man. Properly implemented, it would allow other taxes to be reduced or abolished, and so spread the tax burden more fairly across the population.
There is much in Christian teaching to support a land tax. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, for instance, we find, "The right to private property….does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial.. ."
It is supported by the Green Party. There is a Labour Land Campaign which advocates the tax, and within the Liberal Democrat party Nick Clegg and Vince Cable are Vice Presidents of Action for Land Tax and Economic Reform (ALTER). There is also support from some elements on the right of the Conservative Party, with Nick Boles MP, formerly of the think tank Policy Exchange, advocating it in this year’s Macmillan Lecture.
When such a patently fair tax has support from across the political spectrum one has to ask: what are we waiting for?
© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.Tweet