Essay Contest 2nd Place: The Sum of All Desires
Only Georgism can save modernity from the coming chaos and lead to a full and flourishing society.
For how could there be greed where all had enough? How could the vice, the crime, the ignorance, the brutality, that spring from poverty and the fear of poverty, exist where poverty had vanished?
Who should crouch where all were freemen; who oppress where all were peers?
Henry George’s seminal work, Progress and Poverty (1879), asked whether someone “of the last century [could] have seen, in a vision of the future, the steamship taking the place of the sailing vessel, the railroad train of the wagon, the reaping machine of the scythe, the threshing machine of the flail[?]”The technologies that amazed George in his time, like the engine, telegram, and assembly line, are now old news. Since the industrial revolution and rise of information technology, the battery has replaced the internal combustion engine; the Internet has made the telegram redundant; and, while assembly lines remain a staple of modern manufacturing, far from producing the goods that came to George’s mind — wooden boxes, leather boots, and woven cotton — machines now make other machines. The question arises whether George, being as he was a man of 19th century, could have foreseen fully how the single tax would affect the world in the modern day. Afterall, George made his arguments before the era of climate catastrophe, the rise of automated labor, and the dawn of artificial intelligence.
Nevertheless, by looking “forward into the darkness that overhangs the future,”George foresaw “what Carlyle would call a fool’s paradise, where the production of wealth went on without the aid of labor, and solely by the reproductive force of capital. . . where houses grew from the seed, and a jackknife thrown upon the ground would take root and in due time bear a crop of assorted cutlery.” The idea does not seem so foolish anymore. Far from fantasy, the race towards artificial general intelligence presumes a not-so-distant future where machines can understand and interact with the environment, solving problems in a human-like manner at superhuman speed. This new intelligence is taking shape, today, in the form of Tesla’s Optimus. A bi-pedal, humanoid robot built to replace general purpose labor, rumor is the Optimus is coming in September 2022. But the ultimate consequence of combining artificial intelligence with the automation of labor will not be limited to self-driving vehicles replacing truckers. Analysis by McKinsey & Co. estimates automation of labor will replace 30 percent of the world’s labor force by 2030, displacing 400 to 800 million jobs. Other research has found 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at a “high risk” of automation. The figures are similar in Finland and Norway (35 percent), Germany (59 percent), and across Europe as a whole (45 to 60 percent). Workers in lower income strata and those living in smaller cities will be disproportionately affected, as will rural communities. But machines are already posing stiff competition even to high-skilled workers like doctorsand attorneys.
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Limits on research methodologies,combined with the inherent uncertainty over how artificial intelligence will develop in future, creates a material risk we are significantly underestimating the impact of technological advances on the labor force. However, it is clear the economy is rapidly approaching the point where all kinds of workers will be affected. Therefore, it is prudent policy to prepare for a possible future where the vast majority of labor, if not all, becomes redundant to the process of production. What will the outcome of these developments be for the average person and the planet? There are two reasonably foreseeable, diametrically opposed, and mutually exclusive possibilities. The worst-case scenario, which is likely to occur if we maintain the status quo of ownership rights in the economy, is characterized by the following:
In a completely automated economy, the returns to capital and land will consume the return to labor, such that wages will trend to zero, all return from production being divided between interest and economic rents only;
The average person’s contribution to production will be limited to technology corporations mining their data,but, in most jurisdictions, individuals do not own their data or the products derived therefrom;
Machines will increasingly replace humans as consumers,further reducing human contribution to the economy;
Consequently, the profit-incentive will be to eliminate public spending on education, healthcare, and the social safety net, as workers will no longer be necessary for production or consumption and, therefore, might as well not exist from the perspective of rent-seekers who dominate policy and law-making;
Consequently, political and economic disenfranchisement will vitiate the mass movement to avoid the worst of climate catastrophe. Rent-seekers will be free to continue pillaging the Earth for natural resources to feed the ever-growing energy needs of a machine-based economy;
Consequently, a further expansion in the mass-surveillance security state will be necessary to forcibly oppress resistance, manipulate public opinion against dissenters, and pacify the people into accepting their fate;and
All of this will occur in an anti-democratic context of competition among great powers, megacorporations, and the super-rich for a singletonartificial general intelligence, which arms race will probably trigger total war.
In short, we are on course for a civilization-ending holocaust caused by climate catastrophe, (nuclear) war, artificial general intelligence, or some combination thereof. These are the stakes whether you choose to accept them or not and failure to implement Georgism will set us on the path of no return. It goes without saying we do not want to live in such a miserable world, a world of suffering and terror perpetuated by the delusions of a few poisoned souls. We want a future that reflects our collective happiness, where everyone has room to grow and thrive in a life that is free and beautiful. Georgists know the Earth can provide for us all and that her rich capacity does not depend on any advance in technology. Improving our machinery and increasing our cleverness have not ever and will not now solve the problems we face. The root cause of the world’s ills is not a lack of knowledge, nor skill, nor material: it is a lack of will; a lack of kindness; indeed, a lack of common humanity.
The enduring strength of George’s theory is its recognition of and appreciation for our common humanity. According to George, the golden rule of political economy is humans “seek to gratify their desires with the least exertion.”The problem we face as humans is our “desires increase as they are fed[.]” We are “the only animal that is never satisfied.” All humans possess “[t]he desire to gratify the wants of the animal nature, the wants of the intellectual nature, and the wants of the sympathetic nature; the desire to be, to know, and to do — desires that short of infinity can never be satisfied, as they grow what they feed on.” Satisfaction of our animal wants only leads to higher, grander spheres of desire. Want of hunger and comfort, as soon as it is satisfied, is quickly replaced by desire for taste and style; mere libido cannot replace our desire for romance and love. In some, satisfaction of our animal and intellectual wants gives rise to the desire for power and influence. In most others, “there arises the desire higher yet — the passion of passions, the hope of hopes — the desire that [they] may somehow aid in making life better and brighter, in destroying want and sin, sorrow and shame.”
Far from denying human desire, George’s political economy sublimated greed into a force for humanity’s common prosperity. The beauty of the single tax is it will make greed good in fact. The farmer who only cares for the size of their herd; the investor who has no interest other than maximizing their return; the capitalist who is focused on growing their business; the salesperson who dreams of closing deals; the technologist who just wants to attract more users — all will contribute to a perpetual increase in land values.Snowballing land values will fund more and more public spending, as well as a larger and larger universal basic income, which in turn will raise land values further. Moreover, the Henry George theorem creates a virtuous cycle whereby public spending on hospitals, schools, and other local public goods increases the value of land by more than the cost to build improvements and infrastructure. States that adopt a single tax on economic rents will find public spending can pay for itself, resulting in optimal delivery of maximum social welfare. And by implementing Hillel Steiner’s “global fund” to divide economic rents equally among the peoples of the world, the nightmare scenario of machines eliminating the need for human labor, which would otherwise dramatically exacerbate artificial scarcity and inequality, is thus replaced by the dream of effortless abundance for all. In this way, Georgism will eventually realize the promised land of which society has always dreamed: there will be no need to work to produce wealth. Humans will be able to satisfy their animal wants, if not their higher desires, without any exertion at all. Food, shelter, and all of life’s necessities will be produced by machines without human toil.
It is hard to enumerate the plethora of mutual benefits that will flow from a widespread, single tax over time. First, we can reasonably expect people will choose to work less, and that the kind of work they engage in will be of their own volition as fully autonomous human beings, free from the over-bearing concern for financial security. No longer will people be forced to perform menial tasks for little pay to make ends meet. Instead of a spending half of their waking life working predominately for the benefit of bosses they might not like or shareholders they have never met, people will be able to do what they want, not just in their free time, but all the time. One can imagine artistic pursuits and stewardship of the land and animals will become more popular. Some will pursue a lifetime of learning without the threat of debt coercing them to find employment before their studies are complete. Others will retrain to pursue their calling. Inventors will still invent; traders will still trade; and architects and engineers will continue produce new designs. But the motivation to work will be creative expression, competition for recognition by one’s peers, and betterment of one’s personal circumstances, rather than earning money to pay the rent or mortgage.
Second, people will have all the time in the world to spend with their friends and family. No longer will work compel mothers and fathers to elevate the needs of clients or colleagues above those of their own children. Parents will be able to enjoy their children’s early and formative years. Relief from fear of poverty and financial pressure will lead people to retire early to homeschool their kids, care for their elders, or simply to enjoy the better things in life while they are still young. Democratic participation,mental health, and general morale will all improve. Relationships will no longer suffer for financial stress, leading to a reduction in maladaptive drug use and domestic violence. Divorce rates will plummet, so that more parents will raise their children in stable families.
Third, freed from their desk job and the inhibitions of financial insecurity, people will spend more time travelling the world. Appreciation for the natural world and all its splendor will grow, as will conviction to protect and preserve for future generations our “well provisioned ship . . . on which we sail through space.”The natural consequence of more travel will be increased cultural exchange, leading to better understanding of and more respect between the peoples of the world, in addition to greater individual creativity.
Relatedly, fourth, war will be consigned to the waste bin of history. Wars of imperial aggression for natural resources will become a thing of the past.By eliminating private ownership of economic rents, Georgism eliminates the profit interest in using force to secure access to natural resources, which necessarily entails subjugating the local population and frequently leads to civil war.
Similarly, fifth, by ameliorating poverty and increasing equality of economic outcomes, as well as creating stable families,the motivation for crime and its incidence are significantly reduced. Georgism will lead to safer neighborhoods, less violent crime, and fewer murders and mass shootings.
Sixth, by laying severance taxes on extracted resourcesand Pigouvian taxes on pollution, Georgists will accelerate the transition to renewable energy to roll back from the brink the worst of climate catastrophe. Moreover, we will do so while simultaneously growing the economy. Georgism rejects the false dichotomy between economic growth and ecological security. Even a modest land value tax of only 5.5 percent of asset value is expected to increase long-run output by 14 percent, capital formation by 35 percent, and real wages by 4 percent, while immediately improving the affordability of land by almost 40 percent.
Seventh, Georgism is a truly free-trade ideology opposed to monopoly,not just of land and natural resources, but of all economic rents, including the money supply, industry, and, in some cases, intellectual property. As such, the economic expansion driven by implementing a land value tax will not be led by multi-national corporations boosting short-term earnings, but rather by creators, mom-and-pop small business owners, and their employees. Georgism will strengthen the backbone of the United States economy and continue the American tradition of competitive small business. Under a single tax, business owners will no longer see their success leached away by predatory rent-seekers who raise the rent when they notice a lessee-business is generating profits. Further, Georgists will eliminate the pay-roll tax, as well as all other taxes on wages and capital, allowing businesses, communities, and individuals to keep the full fruits of their labor to save for investments in the future.
Eighth, Georgism will mitigate urban sprawl and the blight of suburbs by taxing heavily urban landowners who refuse to develop their land.Not only is more concentrated land use better for the environment, Georgists promise shorter commutes, less traffic, and more freedom to choose where you live. Whether you want to move to a rural area from an urban one, or to a city from the countryside, Georgism will help you by tearing down artificial barriers to entry to and exit from local markets.
Lastly, unlike socialists and capitalists, who promote a big, strong state to solve all your problems for you, to keep you in your place, and to facilitate war between the nations devoted to fatally flawed models of political economy, Georgists want to devolve power to local communities. By eliminating the need for welfare programs and the temptation towards military aggression, Georgism reduces the size and power of the state, mitigating the risk of state-sponsored tyranny.
In conclusion, the future under the status quo is bleak and poses numerous existential threats to civilization. Under Georgism, quod erat demonstrandum, the future is bright, peaceful, and prosperous. Each reader is strongly encouraged to find a way to contribute to the single tax movement. Everyone has useful talents we can harness towards economic, political, and environmental justice. Join us in the fight of our lives — for our lives, for our planet, for our children and their descendants, and for the common good of humanity. “Amid the scoffs of the present and the sneers that stab like knives, [we build] for the future; [we cut] the trail that progressive humanity may hereafter broaden into a highroad.”
Amadé is a California attorney working on designing the legal architecture for Georgist intentional communities to permanently remove land from the private market. He writes about geoism, democracy, and constitutional and legal issues on his Substack, Law and Politics, and publishes market commentary in The Macro Ratio. Amadé serves as a director of the newly-formed Geoism Foundation. The Foundation is developing the georgism.org and geoism.org domains into the first non-profit crowdfunding platform for Georgists to seek funding for their LVT-related projects and research.
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According to Nick Bostrom, founder of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, a “singleton” is a world order characterized by a single, entrenched decision-making agency exercising control over all people and things on Earth. Artificial general intelligence could form a singleton with potentially civilization-ending consequences. For example, an uncontrolled artificial general intelligence could choose to wipe out humanity or, if malicious actors are able to control the intelligence, it could be used to create a stable, permanent, totalitarian global regime. (See Nick Bostrom, Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards, 9 JOURNAL OF EVOLUTION AND TECHNOLOGY (2002), https://nickbostrom.com/existential/risks (last visited July 24, 2022).)
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PROGRESS AND POVERTY, supra at 136
Thanks. I am sure I do not need to encourage you to keep writing.
Nicely stated. With the author's permission I would like to add this to the online library at the School of Cooperative Individualism website.