What if I could offer you the following three outcomes – 1) an increase in government revenue to the extent that a Basic Income Grant (BIG) can be afforded, 2) a substantial decline in wealth inequality, and 3) a sustainable solution to the land crisis – with just one policy intervention? Fantastic, you’d say, but naïve and, frankly, absurd. There is no policy that we know of that can tackle these immense societal challenges, all in one go.
Wait, I’m not done yet, I’d answer. This policy would make it much easier to build infrastructure, get rid of derelict buildings, would ramp up GDP per capita significantly, and would foster social cohesion.
Seriously? Don’t be ridiculous, you’re dreaming, you’d respond. And to do this, I’d continue, we’d need to do two things that seem almost directly opposed to one another. We need to expand markets. You might nod in agreement, something sensible for the first time. Oh, and we must abolish private property altogether.
This, in short, is the recommendation by two economists, Erik Posner and Glen Weyl, in their new book Radical Markets. Critics seem to agree that this is something worth discussing; Kenneth Rogoff calls this ‘perhaps the most ambitious attempt to rethink democracy and markets since Milton Friedman’.
Although their ideas have huge implications for democracy and immigration too, I will focus here on their first chapter, and probably the one most relevant to South Africa currently: property. They propose a Common Ownership Self-Assessed Tax (COST) on wealth. Property, they argue (like many economists before them), are inevitably monopolistic, and monopolies create inefficiencies in the market. Their COST aims to remove these allocative and investment inefficiencies by introducing a live auction for every asset in society.
So, how does it work? Let’s take Khulekani. His young family has just expanded, and so he wants to buy a new house. He would go to a website – let’s call it UmhlabaWethu.co.za – and open a sort-of Google Maps that will allow him to see every property in South Africa, valued by the owner of the property. He can then decide to buy any property, by just clicking on the property, at the price the owner has listed. The ‘right to exclude’, one of the central tenets of private ownership, is therefore waived in this new system. Every property owned by a company or individual (or government!) must be valued and listed.
So, what prevents owners from just making excessively high valuations, making Khulekani’s attempt at buying a house impossible? Tax. In this system, each owner will pay an annual tax on the self-assessed value of their property, thereby waiving the ‘right to use’, the second central tenet of private ownership. The authors explain: ‘In the popular image of private property, all benefits from use accrue to the owner. Under a COST, on the other hand, a fraction of this use value is revealed and transferred to the public through the tax; the higher the tax, the greater the fraction of use value transferred.’
In other words, all property in South Africa would be on a permanent auction, where the current user of the property determines the price (but pay for that price in tax). It’s almost like Uber, for property.
Imagine a private investor wants to build a high-speed monorail in Cape Town. To do this at present would be almost impossible, as owners of properties on the intended route would hold out for a high price, knowing that they have monopoly bargaining power. A COST would allow an investor to go online and buy up all the properties at the listed price, combine them, and start building the monorail. (Of course, they must also value that property, and pay tax. If another investor believes they can build a more profitable monorail, they might just buy-out the original investor’s right of use.)
Or imagine that the property tax is returned to citizens as a Basic Income Grant. By the authors’ rough calculations, every US citizen from a similar system could receive $20000 annually, which for most would be far less than they would be paying in tax. By their estimates, it would only be the richest 1% property owners that would be paying more than they receive – and often a lot more. This not only reduces inequality (by 4 Gini points, according to their estimates), but it also acts as a subsidy for the poorest.
In South Africa, COST tied to a BIG could do far more to alleviate poverty and address inequality than a policy like expropriation. Unproductive land would be a direct cost to all society: higher property values paying more tax mean that more can be redistributed to everyone. As the authors note, ‘a world in which everyone benefits from the prosperity of others would likely foster higher social trust, a factor essential to the smooth operation of the market economy’.
‘The sharing of wealth would be in accord with many commonsense notions of justice. Wealth is rarely created solely by the actions of the people who are paid for it under capitalism. They normally benefit from the help of friends, colleagues, neighbours, teachers, and many other people who are not fully compensated for their contributions. A COST would better proportion the distribution of wealth o the labour that created it.’
This is a radical proposal. It might have unintended consequences that we cannot currently imagine. That’s why the authors propose a piecemeal adoption of these policies. That is a sensible approach. Experimentation will be needed, perhaps even within one municipality first.
But the radical economic transformation that COST can accomplish is a lesson in how creative thinking – and perhaps a willingness to put away our ideological differences – can help find solutions to a problem that we had thought to be insurmountable.
*An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 13 September edition of finweek.