Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Single Tax

Sep 1, 2017

While I was writing my biography of Louis Taylor, Vancouver’s longest-serving mayor, I was used to having him called many things. Scoundrel, socialist, corrupt, light-weight. One thing no one ever called him was visionary, yet it turns out perhaps that’s what he was.

Taylor was a big fan of the American social theorist Henry George. In 1879 George published Progress and Poverty, one of the best-selling books of the 19th century, in which he argued that the private ownership of land was the root cause of economic inequality. Landlords, he said, enjoyed windfall profits from escalating property values that they didn’t deserve. The solution was a “single tax” on land alone intended to control speculation and confiscate excess rents for the good of the community.

During his first terms as mayor in 1910-11 Taylor became a promoter of the single tax and Vancouver introduced various single tax policies. In fact he was so associated with the idea that he was known across North America as “Single Tax Taylor” and Vancouver as “The Single Tax City.”

What brings this to mind is that the single tax is once again being promoted in the city, this time as the answer to the current affordable housing crisis. Just today, for example, I read this essay by a prominent urban planner making an argument for a land tax as a way to dampen down the speculative frenzy that is inflating Vancouver’s real estate prices.

I am not an economist or a planner so I leave these issues to people who are but it would please the old mayor to know that a policy he championed with such vigor – and which was dismissed by his opponents as a “Socialistic fad” and a “scatterbrained folly” -- is once again relevant to the public discussion.