by Fernando Scornik Gerstein
With 2.791.8101 Square Kilometres of surface Argentina is one of the largest countries in the world and with 36.223.9472 inhabitants one of the comparatively less populated. The actual ratio of inhabitants per Square Kilometres, 13, is one of the lowest in Earth.
In spite of being as a whole an almost empty country, the population is mostly concentrated in an about the city of Buenos Aires and some other few large cities like Córdoba and Rosario (about 12.000.000 people).
Being a country with such an abundance of land and so few inhabitants, nevertheless large sectors of the population live in slums surrounding the big cities, with no access to land.
This situation moved the Catholic Church to issue recently an Episcopal Document about the land problem in the country, proposing different solutions. In the foreword to this document Monseñor Carmelo Juan Giaquinta points out that the relation of the Argentineans with land “is maybe one of the worst in the World”.
Really it is like that, but it should not be so if we look at some of the circumstances of Argentinean history.
Many of the founders of the country in early XIX Century were physiocrats, including General Manuel Belgrano, one of the National Heroes and Bernardino Rivadavia, its first constitutional President. May other prominent figures were imbued by physiocratic ideas. The physiocrats were popular French economic philosophers during the second half of the 18th century. They held that land and productive labor were the primary factors of production and advocated the “impot unique” – a tax on land.
Although the official independence from Spain was only declared in 1816, the country had been in practice independent since the 25th of May 1810 revolution.
Already in 1812 the provisional government issued a decree forbidding the sale of Public Land. But it was in 1827 under the Presidency of Bernardino Rivadavia when a formal law was passed – the law of Emphyteusis – stating that public land3 could only be leased for twenty years periods paying to the State a canon of 8% on the assessed value for cattle raising land and 4% for agricultural land.
The law was excellent and if it had prevailed, Argentina would be now – as it was until 1920 (when free land, was still available) - one of the richest countries in the world. But it did not prevail. Rivadavia was a “Unitarian” supporting the idea of a centralized government which could impose progressive policies. He was defeated by the “federals” a loose alliance of provincial leaders (caudillos) that rejected his ideas.
Rivadavia was force to resign, the Law of Emphyteusis was denaturalized and slowly abandoned, permitting the creation of large estates or “Estancias”. Finally the Law was officially repealed in 1857 and the progressive ideas of Rivadavia were forgotten until 1917 when a Uruguayan Scholar, Andrés Lamas, published a famous book: “The Economic Work of Benardino Rivadavia”.
Argentina fell into the domination of an agrarian based oligarchy, but the existence of so much free land secured the country’s economic progress until the 1920s. It is by then that massive migration caused an increase in land values, that without proper taxation has been since – in general lines – the feature of the country.
Nevertheless there were attempts to impose land taxation, mainly under the influence of the Civil Radical Union, a Centre political party, which although facing enormous resistance by the ruling classes, imposed a moderate land taxation scheme in the Province of Córdoba under the Radical Governor Amadeo Sabattini and in the Province of Entre Rios, also under a Governor of the Civil Radical Union. Unfortunately these were only provincial measures. Since the 1930 military coup that overthrew the Constitutional Radical President Hipolito Irigoyen, the Federal level of the country was ruled by the Conservative Party using fraud and violence in the polls.
There was also an attempt to impose urban land value taxation in the city of Buenos Aires in 1923 by the Radicals and the Socialist, but the law – initially approved – was repealed in the same year.
In 1921 a “Liberal Georgist Party” was created, based on the ideas of Henry George, but beyond some local electoral sources it failed to gain national support.
In 1943 a military coup – with notorious fascist influences – defeated the fraudulent Conservative Government and under the influence of general Juan Domingo Perón engaged in a program of reforms that gave Perón popular support. In 1945 Perón won the elections and was elected President, engaging almost immediately in a nationalistic and autarchic program that after some few years of bonanza put the country on its knees.
Perón – who in the early years had the support of some advocates of land taxation like Antonio Manuel Molinary and Mauricio Birabent – never undertook any serious program of social or taxation reform. But he did one important thing: he frozed urban and agrarian rents and in the midst of a process of inflation this caused a massive transfer of income from the landowners in favour of those who rented land from them.
According to our opinion this action – jointly with some important social laws – was the reason for the permanent popular support of Perón.
Perón was deposed in 1955 and after that there were no significant efforts undertaken to impose land taxation until 1969 when a military dictator, General Onganía, enacted a law imposing a 1.6% annual tax on the capital value of agrarian land.
Unfortunately, Onganía was quickly deposed and the law abandoned, although under its influence Argentina had the largest harvests in many years. Apparently even this small land tax was an incentive for agricultural production.
In 1973 the author of this paper was called by the Argentinean Minister of Economy, Dr. Aldo Ferrer, and asked to draft a project for rural land taxation. The project – in which I proposed to tax all land and not only rural land with an annual tax of 2% of the value of land – was published by the Ministry of Agriculture, but never implemented.
There were also other laws taxing the “potential (imputed) rent of agrarian land”, at quite low taxation levels, but they were never really enforced.
In recent times Héctor Raúl Sandler, leader of the Union of Argentinean People – a centre party – was an important advocate of land taxation. Persecuted by the military government he went into exile, then returned to Argentina where he continues to be the leading figure advocating land value taxation in Argentina.
In 2001 the author drafted a new program of tax reform, based on a land tax of 3% on the value of urban and rural land. The project has been “under study” by the National Government since June 20054.
The actual situation is that land taxation as such is virtually non-existant in Argentina. There are no taxes on capital gains from land and no transfer taxes.
Only the municipal taxes collect - with substantial differences in its rates according to the different provinces – some rent of land although the taxes always fall on land and buildings jointly.
The strength for a land taxation policy in Argentina comes from two sides:
The Law of Emphyteusis of Bernardino Rivadavia is known and Rivadavia is considered one of the greatest Argentinean statesmen.
Also the progressive government of Amadeo Sabatini in the province of Córdoba – who imposed land taxation – is highly considered. Furthermore land tax ideas always had important followers in Argentina – some of them supported general Perón in 1945 – and in the Peronist movement there always has been a knowledge that freezing the rents paid to landlords during the Perón era was one of the secrets of his popular support.
Taxing the “imputed rent of agararian land” has had and continues to have a certain degree of political support within the Argentinean main political parties.
The land problem in Argentina is so acute that as soon as a possible solution is explained it calls the attention of the general public, both in the countryside and in the cities.
The actual position of the Catholic Church is extremely important because for the first time in history it has pointed out the serious injustice concerning the relationship between the people and the land of Argentina. The position of the Catholic Church – which has undoubtedly great influence over vast sectors of the population – is of extraordinary importance and gives opportunities for those favouring land taxation.
Another important fact in Argentinean reality is that the military – after the terrible repression during the last dictatorship that ended in the disastrous Falkland War that finally pushed the militars out of Power – are not in conditions to engage in military coups, which had been a traditional way for the Argentinean ruling classes to stop reforms introduced by governments.
The main barrier to introducing a land taxation scheme in Argentina derives from the absolute ignorance of the Argentinean political leaders concerning the importance of the land problem.
In the recent national elections – won by a faction of the Peronists that has made Mrs. Cristina Kirchner (wife of the former President) the new President of the country – none of the presidential candidates or the political parties supporting them had land taxation – even a modest one – in their manifestos.
The political parties – except those of a rather insignificant extreme left inclined to communist type “solutions” – do not speak of the land problem at all. There is a popular knowledge of the land problem, but this is not reflected within the political elite.
The city of Buenos Aires is surrounded by slums. Even the police do not dare to enter some of them. But this extraordinary reality – that so many people are squeezed into a small amount of land in a relatively empty country - seems not to have caught the attention of the politicians. They prefer to look at any other cause of poverty rather than direct their attention to the root cause – the land tenure system of Argentina.
Unfortunately this ignorance of the politicians is matched with a similar one of the scholars who tend to ignore totally the existence of a land problem. Even the ideas of Bernardino Rivadavia are not a subject of study in the Argentinean Universities.
There is also a threat. This threat comes from the always powerful Argentinean landed-oligarchy that clearly knows the subject and would deploy all efforts to stop land taxation.
1. Counting only Continental Argentina, excluding the Antarctic and South Atlantic Areas which are in dispute. Including them the surface would be of 3.761.274.
2. 2001 census.
3. In those years almost all the land in the Country was in the Public Domain.
4. Both projects of Fernando Scornik Gerstein have been recently published in Argentina in a book called “Tenencia de la Tierra para una sociedad más justa”. Edited by the Instituto de Capacitación Economica”