One of the interesting things about being a Christian reactionary is that I keep discovering huge unsuspected remnants of my native modernism by means of their sudden collapse. One moment a liberal notion is cooking along as well and as unconsciously as ever, drawing no attention to itself, and the next its incoherence or absurdity are suddenly revealed to my conscious awareness and admitted to my concern by its contradiction – practical, logical, empirical – with other notions I feel sure are true. I never even notice these wrong-headed ideas or policies – call them illogismoi – until this happens. When it does, things appear to me in a new way – or rather, in what generally turns out to be quite an old way, that had never before seemed like a way at all.
I never know what will trigger these mental avalanches. Often it is quite a little thing.
This happened to me again recently when I was mulling Zippy Catholic’s arguments for the inherent injustice of property taxes. I have long thought that such taxes are indeed unjust – have hated them in my guts, together with capital gains taxes, estate and death taxes, business equipment taxes, and other levies against property. So when I read his arguments, my reaction was, “yeah, damn right.”
Now, suddenly, I am not so sure. Or perhaps I am. Bear with me, now, as I explain how consideration of property tax opened a new horizon to my fuddled sight. Or no, wait: a very old horizon, rather.
Property taxes may indeed be unjust. My mind is not closed on the subject, one way or the other. But it is not property taxes themselves that I am interested here to discuss. Nevertheless, to get at what I do want to discuss, I shall have to deal with them a bit first, to lay the groundwork for what will follow. Both the groundwork regarding property tax and the work built upon it are fairly long, so this first post is devoted to the former. A subsequent post will address the latter.
It should be noted first that there are at least two different ways that property taxes could be unjust: namely, either per se, or as administered.
It seems clear that they are at the present time unjust in the second way. As they are now administered, the county assesses the value of your real property, and, in its sole discretion (albeit not, usually, without right of appeal) determines what your tax will therefore be. The real estate market being so imperfect, and parcels nowise much fungible, such assessments cannot but be notional, at best, so that the assessments, and thus the taxes levied, can have but a tenuous similitude to reality, or therefore to equity or justice.
The property tax also discourages the improvement of assets. An increase in the assessed value of property triggered by the approval of a building permit is a significant disincentive to building. A sane and just tax would reward increase, rather than punishing it.
It would make more sense to tax property on the basis of the revenues it had generated in the preceding year, if it weren’t for the fact that lots of real estate generates no revenues at all. Better then, perhaps, for the county to dispense with property tax altogether, and replace the revenues thereof by taxes on business revenues on local sales, which are on the one hand fairly easy to ascertain and account for, and on the other a relatively objective and accurate proxy for the economic value realized by participants in the county’s markets (both locals (including owners and renters of real property) and foreigners) by means of their participation therein – so as to compensate the local sovereign for his costs in giving and keeping of the law, that enable the orderly markets by which such transactions may transpire in the first place.
So much, then, for administrative justice, and – by logical implication – efficiency, that redound to local prosperity (and a larger tax base, and greater revenues to the sovereign).
Is property tax essentially unjust, no matter how perfectly administered? Perhaps not.
It is just here that my thinking suddenly shifted in an unanticipated direction. Under the terms of the sort of society we now inhabit, property tax does indeed seem unjust, if only because it constitutes a coerced taking, rather than an effectual toll or fee for service, as with a sales or revenue tax, that is levied as a condition of transactions freely undertaken. We can control how much sales tax we pay by controlling our purchases. In collecting the sales tax, the publican points a gun at us and says, “You must pay me 8% of the purchase price of that item you are thinking of buying, if you do indeed buy it.” We are free to decide that the item in question is not worth 108% of its price, and forgo the transaction and the tax. The publican will then lower his gun, and walk away. In collecting the property tax, on the other hand, the publican levels his gun and says, “You must pay me 0.15% of the value of your property, now, and again every year, or I shall take far more from you.” Until we fork over the money, he will not lower his weapon and leave us in peace.
As Zippy points out, this absolutely coerced taking has the inevitable effect, over the years, of transferring the whole value of a property to the tax man, and away from us and from our families.
That word, “family” is the fulcrum of the paradigm shift I experienced. The property tax is unjust, and the publican hated, because he is alien to us, and to ours. He is not family. He is a stranger. He is an adversarial counterparty in an atomist polity constituted almost entirely of strangers, abiding together peaceably only in virtue of the operation and enforcement of impersonal laws (not that impersonal law is bad – it is not – but rather that in a thoroughly atomist society it is pretty much the only glue). But what if the publican were rather an agent of our grandfather, say, and himself our cousin and occasional tablemate? What if paying property taxes was an act of filial piety, rather than civic duty? What if the tax were, not a cost imposed upon us by an adversary, but our grateful contribution to the common weal of our clan or tribe, that alone secured the safety of our homesteads from the depredations of aliens?
Such was the origin of the modern property tax. It began as the obligation of each man to provide annual service to his lord in proportion to his wealth or station; where money was to be had, this provision might be made in coin, rather than in kind. In time of peace, each man was obliged to supply a certain number of hours of corvée labor (on, e.g., roads, aqueducts, dikes, temples, castles). In time of war, the obligation of fealty was to provide a certain number of armed soldiers – in the case of the landless peasant, perhaps only himself – to serve his count during each year’s campaigning season. Counts in turn were expected to provide annual labor or armed men to their lords, all the way up the noble hierarchy to the king, each in proportion to the size and wealth of his holdings.
These holdings were all personal property. A man’s property then included the property of his vassals, who held their own property in virtue of their fealty to their lord.
The peasant owned his farm, true; but he owned it thanks to his essentially familial relation to his lord, who was originally the chieftain of his clan, and his relative. He owned it, that is to say, in the truest sense “in stead of” his lord, and ergo of his whole clan. His property was his only in virtue of the recognition by the whole clan – vicariously personified in his lord – of his rightful ownership: of, i.e., the validity of the transaction by which it came to him, whether by purchase, or inheritance, or feat of arms, or gift (perhaps from his lord in return for meritorious service), or marriage, or what have you. And this rightful ownership could be rescinded by the count for the people of the county, whether or not for cause, albeit not usually without compensation; this being the origin of the doctrine of eminent domain. Personal property, then, was rather an allocation by the clan than an appropriation by the owner.
In our atomic society, property tax is a sort of invasion, an act of veiled violence inflicted upon us by an alien adversary whose interests are not coterminous with ours. In a familial society, it would be an act of filial piety, and of love, and of duty, on the part of the owner toward his seniors, and through them toward his own people. It would be more like a tithe than a tax; which is to say, more like an offering in sacrifice than a robbery.
Now, none of this is to argue that a society organized along familiar lines would be immune to injustice. Any system of civil administration is vulnerable to error, to administrative injustice, and yes, to wickedness. Families can be horribly rotten. Indeed, families (like all human institutions) can be haunts of violence and oppression, fonts of jealousy, envy, malice, and falsehood. As scripture makes clear, families are a palmary context of murder, fraud, treason, and indeed of sin. So families are no panacea, and neither would a feudal or clannish hierarchy established upon them usher in the New Jerusalem.
It would be odd indeed for a traditionalist, especially an orthospherean like me, to suggest that there is any merely human way to establish utopia. There is no such thing as an Earthly panacea, or a utopia, anywhere but in the New Jerusalem itself.
Notwithstanding that, some societies and their policies are in fact better than others, and while we cannot fix everything under the sun, we can and should improve this or that, where doing so will improve things overall. That we cannot possibly do the perfect thing does not mean that we should not try to do the right thing.
In any case, all I mean here to suggest is that in a true community – which it seems to me is not really achievable in the absence of a shared interest and commitment to a common genetic heritage (but which in its presence can, indeed, be maintained even though deeply rotten) – property taxes are not takings, but contributions, and are not, therefore, fundamentally unjust.
Now Zippy could well respond to all this, I think rightly, that in a familiar society such as I have described, “tax” would not in the first place be quite an accurate term for an annual contribution to the common weal in proportion to one’s property and station. In such a polity, the annual contribution would not in fact be a tax at all, but … a contribution, pure and simple, no different in character than the constant costly duties we owe in justice and love to our children, siblings, and parents. Thus his arguments against the justice of the property taxes we all endure in this our individualist, atomist society would still stand, not at all touched by what I have here said.
If he were to say that, I think now, having come to the end of this particular preambulatory train of thought (at least for the time being), that I would agree. In our sort of society, property tax seems unjust. But in a proper sort of society, I think it would not.
So much then for the groundwork. In a subsequent post, I’ll get to the beginning of the work.