The intellectual origins of the modern-day community land trust begin in the United States with a home-grown, self-educated political economist named Henry George. He was born in Philadelphia in 1839, went to work as an office boy at 13 years of age, and ran away to sea at the age of 16. He eventually landed in San Francisco, where he found employment at a local newspaper. He worked his way up from printer, to reporter, to editor, eventually becoming the newspaper’s owner and a prosperous man.
George was vexed by an intellectual problem that he called the “great enigma.” Why is there immense poverty amidst so much wealth, poverty that occurs despite social, economic, and technological progress? Reading widely, he encountered the work of the English political theorist, John Stuart Mill. He was struck by Mill’s concept of the “social increment,” an economic theory asserting that most of the appreciating value of land is created not by the investment or labor of individual landowners, but by the growth and development of the surrounding society. This insight allowed him to crack the code of the “great enigma.”
George saw poverty as resulting from the ownership of land by a small cadre of landowners who are able to capture for themselves the appreciating value of land – i.e., real estate values that are created, as John Stuart Mill had suggested, by the growth and development of society. Landlords, in George’s eyes, are little more than parasites feeding off the productivity of others. Whenever there is economic progress – new technologies, higher wages, higher profits – landowners simply raise their rents or the selling price of their real estate holdings. This constitutes, in George’s words, “an invisible tax on enterprise,” collected by those who contribute nothing themselves to increased productivity. Landlordism is a bane for capital and labor alike.
An obvious remedy for this sorry state of affairs would be for government to nationalize the land. But George was too much of a political realist – and too much an admirer of the Jeffersonian ideal of small-scale landholding – to propose such a radical solution. Instead, he proposed a single tax: Have government tax away the social increment, collecting for the benefit of the public all of the land gains that society itself has created. By George’s calculation, this tax on the appreciating value of land would be sufficient to cover all of a government’s costs of providing infrastructure, schools, and other public services. This would allow the elimination of all other taxes on profits, wages, and structural improvements. A single tax would do it all.
He laid out his argument for the single tax in Progress and Poverty, published in 1879. His book was a bestseller. It was followed by a steady stream of books and pamphlets in which George repeated and refined the ideas introduced in Progress and Poverty. His published works and public speeches brought George wide fame and a large following, spawning an international “single-tax movement.” Single-tax clubs sprang up across the United States and throughout Europe, dedicated to promoting George’s ideas.
George’s fame was spread abroad not only through the publication and translation of Progress and Poverty and other works, but also by the presence of George himself. He made six trips outside of the United States between 1881 and 1890.
Back in the United States, other followers of Henry George were busily developing experimental communities of their own. These so-called “single-tax colonies” combined community ownership of the land and individual ownership of the structural improvements. The first was established in Fairhope, Alabama in 1894 on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay.
Another single-tax colony was established in Arden, Delaware in 1900, outside of Wilmington. The founders drew up plans for a village of artists and artisans, where the land would be held in trust. Residents were granted 99-year ground leases. They could sell their houses but not the land. Upon the resale of a house, the land lease was transferred to the new homeowner. These plans led to the development of a thriving community that still exists, a hundred years later. Its current population is over 500 people.
Another part of George’s legacy to the CLT movement is the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. The Institute was established in 1946 by John C. Lincoln, a Cleveland industrialist and investor. He was intrigued by the writings of Henry George, especially George’s ideas about land ownership and taxation. Lincoln created the Foundation to support other institutions in the teaching, research, and publication of information about George’s work.
In 2005, under the leadership of Roz Greenstein, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy stepped in to provide critical financial and logistical support for the National CLT Conference in Portland, Oregon when the conference’s sponsor abruptly withdrew. One year later, Lincoln underwrote the creation of the National CLT Academy and provided continuous funding for curriculum development, training, and research during the six-year span of the Academy’s operation.
1839: Birth of Henry George in Philadelphia.
1865: George begins work in the newspaper industry, starting as a printer, continuing as a journalist, and ending as an editor and proprietor.
1871–1875: George serves as editor of the San Francisco Daily Evening Post.
1879: Publication of Progress and Poverty.
1880: George moves to New York City.
1881: Publication of George’s The Land Question. George begins the first of six trips he will take outside of the United States between 1881 and 1890, visiting Ireland, England, France, and Australia.
1883: Publication of George’s Social Problems.
1886: George campaigns for mayor of New York City as the candidate of the United Labor Party. Publication of George’s Protection or Free Trade.
1894: Establishment of single tax colony at Fairhope, Alabama.
1897: George is persuaded to run a second time for mayor of New York City, opposing Tammany Hall as a candidate of the city’s labor organizations. Four days before the election he dies of a stroke on October 29th.
1898: Posthumous publication of George’s The Science of Political Economy.
1900: Establishment of single tax colony at Arden, Delaware.
1925: Establishment of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation to promote public awareness of the social philosophy and economic reforms advocated by Henry George.
1946: Establishment of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
- Charles Albro Barker, Henry George (Oxford University Press, 1955 and Greenwood Press, 1974).
- Henry George, Progress and Poverty, Abridged edition (New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1998. (Text of the full, unabridged book)
- Henry Wiencek, “A Delaware Delight: The Oasis Called Arden,” in John Emmeus Davis (ed.), The Community Land Trust Reader (Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2010).