Free Acres is a social experiment which began in 1910 and has somehow survived into the 1990's. The 75-acre wooded community of 85 households in New Jersey lies about 33 miles west of Manhattan. People can own the houses on the lots they lease, but they can never own the land. All the land is held collectively by the community, along with a century old farmhouse and a spring-fed pool. On the last Monday of every month there is a community meeting at the farmhouse to address the concerns of the Free Acres folk.
Free Acres was founded on the ideals of Henry George, a 19th century political economist. According to George, all land is a gift of nature, and all people have an equal right to use the land and its fruits. With increasing population and the development of the economy, the value of the land increases. The current system of land ownership allows landlords to collect the increasing value of the land by charging higher rents, even though it has been created, not by their efforts, but by society. George proposed to retain private ownership of land, but for society to appropriate the socially created value of the land with a tax. The landowner would be left with the full value of the improvements he or she makes on the land. He argued that all taxation should be replaced with a single tax on land. Since land ownership is concentrated in the hands of the few, he felt this would end the primary cause of social and economic inequality in modern society.
My family moved to Free Acres in 1965 and continues to live there today. I grew up spending summer days at the Free Acres pool and winter days sledding on the farmhouse hill. I lived there from first grade through high school and all my college summer vacations. I still return frequently to visit my parents. The Free Acres I know is a special and unique community, but it has drifted from the ideals of Henry George in the face of broader and stronger social forces. It is an interesting case study in experimental societies.
Henry George (1839-1897)
Henry George was described by Karl Marx as "capitalism's last gasp." While most issues are best left to market forces, George realized that some concerns legitimately belonged in the public realm. In a democratic society everyone should have an equal opportunity to share in the use of the country's land and resources, all the sources of wealth in the land, sea, air and space. These are all gifts of nature and do not belong to any individual. But George saw no need to abolish the right of individuals to possess and exploit particular sites and tracts. He would guarantee the security of private possession by those able to use the land to the best social advantage. He reconciles the common right and the individual right by requiring the users to pay taxes according to the value of the land they are using. These taxes would go to the public treasury to provide public goods and services for everyone. This would socialize the economic rent of the land. George's vision was of a mixed economy in which the value of land was socialized, but free enterprise guaranteed liberty and productive prowess in all other spheres.
He made this argument on both equity and efficiency grounds. Much of
the value of land results from population growth, community development,
and public decisions to invest in roads, schools, and utilities like water,
gas and sanitation. As a result, landowners realize large "unearned increments"
of income with little or no expenditure of effort or money. Because the
value of land is largely determined by public decision and public investment,
the community should recapture the resulting increases in land value through
taxation and use the revenues for public purposes.
This land tax is also economically efficient. It has a neutral effect upon the allocation or use of land. Unlike most other taxes, a tax on land value does not contribute to the misallocation of resources. For example, the imposition of an income tax would distort the worker's preferred balance between work and leisure away from the optimum. The tax would cause workers to offer less productive effort and take more leisure. It reduces the supply of labor and economic output. Most cities currently rely on property taxes on buildings for revenue. Taxes on buildings tends to lower their return to investors and discourage their construction. In comparison, the complete inelasticity of the supply of land means that a tax on land rent has no effect on price or output and therefore does not alter resource allocation. Since the supply of land is fixed, a tax on land can not decrease the supply of land. In short, there would be no social welfare losses resulting from this kind of taxation.
Furthermore, with a full land tax, George believed that other forms of taxation which result in market distortions would be rendered unnecessary. Neither income nor human-made improvements to the land would be subject to government purview. He argued that only the land should be taxed and led the way for the single-tax movement. Ultimately he believed that the marked disparities between rich and poor would disappear with the application of such policies. George hoped for a mixed economy in which only land values would be socialized through the mechanism of the single tax. George made a strong case for free, open and fair competition in the rest of the economy. He opposed monopolies, calling attention to the steel trusts of Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan and the oil trust of John Rockefeller. He also crusaded for free trade, opposing tariffs, quotas and all the myriad of restrictions on foreign trade.
Founding of Free Acres
In 1910 Bolton Hall (1854-1938), a follower of Henry George, founded Free Acres. Hall's background and intellectual predilections were strikingly similar to those of George. The son of a prominent New York City Presbyterian minister, Hall also combined religious and economic views to argue that humankind should serve as the "stewards" of the land. Hall's philosophy is a combination of the law of love enunciated by Jesus, the economic views of Henry George, and the political rights of people defined by Thomas Jefferson.
Bolton Hall advocated Henry George's view that the full value of land, and only the land should be taxed. He was opposed to the income tax because he felt it induced people to work less and in that way undermined the common good. Furthermore, he thought that if the "great unwashed" were able to move out from city slums to where land was both more accessible and less expensive, and were provided with the opportunity to manage their own affairs, economic and social disadvantages would disappear.
He also followed American anarchists and antistatists in the tradition of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and John Brown. He was influenced by his contemporary anarchists like Russians Leo Tolstoy and Pyotr Kropotkin, Englishman William Morris and American Emma Goldman. He believed that governments generally interfere unjustly with individual liberty and should be replaced by the voluntary association of cooperative groups. He held a vision of small cooperative communities in which simple life can maximize opportunity for individual self-expression.
He founded Free Acres to serve as a working experiment in local democracy, a living testament to his beliefs. He had an abiding faith in small communities, that liberty, justice and greater equality would prevail among the face to face relationships provided by the Free Acres monthly meeting. Free Acres would be able to avoid the onerous burden of bureaucracy and the futility of civil service reform that he associated with state socialism.
There were dozens of experimental communities in the U.S. at the time. Bolton Hall had connections with the communities like Stelton, New Jersey, Helicon Hall in Englewood, New Jersey, Arden, Delaware, Roycroft in Aurora, New York and Fairhope, Alabama. These experimental societies were a manifestation of the social ferment before World War I. The industrial revolution transformed American society after the Civil War. The growth of large corporations and the growing reliance on industrial technology seemed to lessen the importance of individual initiative in an increasingly complicated world. People perceived a disintegration of society and social chaos. Thus with the growing inequality in the distribution of wealth, a wide range of reformists and revolutionary thought was spurred.
The goals of the Free Acres Association are enunciated in the preamble to its constitution. "We, the leaseholders and residents of Free Acres, desiring to create a community for the study and demonstration of problems of self-government, social progress, and taxation where all shall be mutually helpful and free from all forms of monopoly of natural resources, in order to secure to all equality of opportunity and to each a full reward of efforts, have this day organized ourselves under the name of the Free Acres Association..."
The Free Acres constitution included the rights of referendum and initiative. It prohibited monopolies like water and electric utilities from entering Free Acre lands. It gave women the right to vote years before universal suffrage was established under the U.S. constitution. Each leasehold has one vote, but the husband and wife are allowed to split their votes. And it requires that taxes be assessed in the community pursuant to the philosophy and principles of the single tax as expounded by Henry George. Only the land would be taxed "excluding improvements on those premises."
With the constitution, Hall drafted an interlocking set of four documents to establish a community consistent with his social philosophy. These four documents are the constitution, a corporate charter, a deed of gift, and a leasehold agreement. The land in Free Acres is owned by the community, not individuals. The land is protected from future abuse by the Association by reversionary clauses in the deed of gift. Mismanagement by Free Acres will lead to the return of the land to Bolton Hall and his heirs. The Association can protect itself and the land from individual abuse through the one year leasehold agreement. The Association can terminate the leasehold agreement if the individual fails to pay annual rent, uses the land in a harmful manner, or cuts down trees without Free Acres permission. Democracy with respect to managing the land is protected by the corporate charter and the constitution. The Free Acres Association is run by three elected trustees. The trustees set policy, enforce rules, keep track of finances, and collect the annual tax.
Free Acres History
In 1910 Bolton Hall donated 68 acres of the old Murphy farm to the new Free Acres Association. At the time it was a cleared but neglected farmstead with a ramshackle 18th century farmhouse. Free Acres was initially a community of summer residences for New York left wingers, an odd collection of Greenwich Village artists, actors, intellectuals and "free thinkers" who cherished a rugged communing with nature. They were of older American stock and more recent European immigrants sharing a desire for a simple life away from the city. It was a single-tax colony, but not of single taxers. There were about 30 residents in Free Acres in the summers before World War I. Along with Bolton Hall, actors James Cagney and Victor Kilian, and writers Thorne Smith, MacKinlay Kantor and Michael Gold were early residents. The houses, if you could call them that, were initially just tent platforms and unheated little shacks. Without modern sanitation and drainage systems, health concerns like malaria were serious problems.
Despite their touted tolerance of diversity, early Free Acres folks reflected a striking homogeneity in their libertarian spirit, love of nature and enthusiasm for rugged adventure. They advocated racial and sexual equality, liberation from Victorian sexual mores and social customs, and had a special sensitivity to the environment well before their time. Today these notions would be widely accepted, but in those days it earned them the nickname "freakers." They were free thinkers, progressive and forward thinking for their time.
By the 1920's about 50 families regularly went out to Free Acres to commune with nature and exchange ideas during the summers. They built cottages on the tent platforms and additions to their shacks. The Free Acres community built a community baseball field, swimming pool, tennis court, and open air theater. Along with the farmhouse, these were centers of community life and pride. They were known for their heated political discussions and elaborate summer theatrical productions. Formal activities were organized around groups like the Library Guild, Dramatic Guild and Garden Guild.
With the Great Depression, Free Acre families began winterizing their modest cabins and bungalows so that they could live there all year round. During this time there was also an influx of German immigrant families . Most of these German families included skilled craftsmen - carpenters, machinists, masons and plumbers. They began to construct more substantial homes. They exchanged skills with each other, working on each other's homes. They built remarkably solid houses. In 1968 our family bought one of these German-built homes. The Klein house was 30 years old at the time, but still in excellent condition. In 1970 we built an extension to the original house. About 15 years later we had to replace the shingles on the roof of the extension, but the original shingles on original house were still in fine shape.
Management of Free Acres increasingly fell in the hands of the more practical German immigrant craftsmen and a growing group of Jewish business people who were drawn to the community in the early 1930s. The German families, along with Jewish business people provided a stabilizing influence on Free Acres. They planned and built new roads, provided a more reliable water supply and built an attractive swimming pool. Though the Germans shared a love of nature, a respect for mutual aid and were socialists disgusted with the political turmoil in their homeland, they were clearly distinguishable from the artists of Greenwich Village.
The housing improvements in the 1930s lead to serious tensions in Free Acres. Though Free Acres taxed land but not the improvement on the land, the larger community taxed the improvements. Thus the local municipal authorities began taxing Free Acre improvements more aggressively. This inherent contradiction lead to internal conflicts. A leaseholder with merely a tent platform would pay the same taxes as a leaseholder with a home complete with indoor plumbing if the property were of the same size.
Thus in 1936 Free Acres adopted the "communal tax advantage system" under which the assessments of the local authorities were now passed on to the individual leaseholders. The internal Free Acres expenses were still shared equally. Each household now pays a tax to Free Acres based on the value of the house and the size of the leasehold to cover public services like road repair and the maintenance of common buildings along with the local and state taxes. The Association pays a single tax to Berkeley Heights to cover the water use and state property tax. At this time Bolton Hall backed his bags and left Free Acres in disgust. He died two years later in Georgia.
Pressures of modern society and winterization lead to further departures from the ideals of Henry George. Though the arrival of monopolies were prohibited by the Free Acres constitution, Free Acres invited the local electric company and the telephone company to provide services in 1937. Garbage collection and natural gas services eventually arrived, and more recently cable TV.
After World War II Free Acres found itself in the direct path of rapid suburban development. The rural, agricultural community around Free Acres was being transformed into a suburban dormitory. Many corporations moved into New Jersey, most notably AT&T Bell Laboratories which is where my father worked. The rugged trek from New York City to Free Acres which took half a day at the beginning of the century was now merely a one hour commute by train. By 1950 many homes were fully winterized with complete indoor plumbing, and two-thirds of the residents in Free Acres lived there all year round.
With the growth of the suburbs, property values started to rise. Initially Free Acre houses were largely financed by the seller or through transfers made within the family. When my parents bought our house, they bought it directly from the owner. The monthly mortgage payments went directly to the previous owner, not to any bank. But with rising home values, there was increasing pressure to seek outside financing. Unfortunately due to the relative legal anomaly of Free Acres with its one year leases, banks were reluctant to lend. So in the 1960s Free Acres rewrote its lease from one year to 99 years with option to renew. The land is now leased for 99 years whenever the house is sold, or whenever the leaseholder dies and passes on the interest to heirs.
Encroachment from the larger society continued. In the 1960s the state shaved off a part of the south side of Free Acres in order to built interstate highway 78. Free Acres was also hooked up to the Berkeley Heights sewer system. In the 1980s we were told to make improvements to the Free Acres pool or have it closed by the state. It was also necessary to build a secure fence around the pool and limit access to the keys for insurance reasons. And homes in Free Acres started selling at a premium. Realtors point to the community's unique history, attractive amenities, vibrant social life and scenic woodland setting. Naturally increased property tax assessments followed, and taxes almost doubled in 1982.
Free Acres Today
Today the residents of Free Acres tend to be upper-middle class professionals. Lawyers, scientists, judges, and professors abound. Many commute to work in New York City. There are even some Republicans. However, the community still remains slightly left of center. In 1972 I went door-to-door with a petition for the impeachment of Richard Nixon. Everyone in Free Acres signed my petition, but as soon as I left Free Acres people slammed doors in my face.
All the houses in Free Acres retain their own unique character. The houses must still be single story structures under 2,000 square feet, though recently variances have been fairly common. Only one dwelling is permitted to sit on each lot. A new home can not be built unless and old home is torn down. People can own their own houses, but they can not own the land. No one can own more than one home in Free Acres. There are no street lights in the community to preserve the natural ambiance. Trees more than 4 feet high and 3 inches in diameter may not be cut down without community approval. There are no fences in Free Acres, only pathways through the woods to connect the houses.
Over the years Free Acres has wandered from its roots in Henry George. The single tax in Free Acres could not work within a larger community which does not have a single tax. It worked for a while in Free Acres, as long as the houses were generally of uniform size, all small, simple and unpretentious, and the township assessors did not evaluate houses individually but Free Acres as a whole. But when these changed, the single tax had little chance. It forced families in small houses to subsidize the tax payments of families in larger houses.
The old timers also lament a decline in community spirit. There are no more summer theatrical productions. And the residents no longer help each other build their homes. But much of the community spirit in the early years seems to have been prompted by the primitive style of life. And while there may be less community than there used to be, there is certainly more community than in the outlying suburbia. Here the principles of Jeffersonian democracy are still at work. On the last Monday of every month there is still a meeting at the farmhouse to discuss the issues facing Free Acres . People attend the monthly meetings where tempers rise and fall and get to know their neighbors quickly. They retreat to the pool afterward to continue their discussions. Neighbors taking walks through the community's wooded paths, meet each other and carry on hours of debates. And cooperative, voluntary effort is still employed to maintain the community's 75 acres. In May of each year we all get together to clean out the swimming pool for the summer season. We do the same when the tennis court needs a new fence, or the farmhouse needs to be cleaned out.
Around 1980 a resident named Jane Hall was running for treasurer. We
all knew that Jane was the artistic type and not very good with numbers.
But we also knew that she was trying to support her ailing sister, Betsy
Brown, and herself on their Social Security checks. The treasurer job would
pay her $100 a month, money she desperately needed. So we elected Jane
treasurer. After she left the job, it took two years to straighten out
the Free Acre books. The triumph of compassion over consequence is classic
Free Acres. After almost ninety years, it is still a unique community.