The Circumstantial Injustice of Taxes on Property

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.

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Vainglory & Hatred

Anyone who has for very long been a conservative – let alone a reactionary – will have found himself from time to time buffeted about by some acquaintance who is in the grip of a physiological syndrome endemic among liberals:

Rebellion → dysfunction → weakness → fear → anger → hate → dysfunction …

As it happens, my family and I have over the last few days been weathering a barrage of slings and arrows hurled by a few outraged liberals, on account of our extremely mild but public utterances of ritually impure ruminations on the latest waves of innovation in public policy. It’s painful, and above all tiresome. But one grows accustomed to it, over time. Until the Great Awakening, there will be no alternative.

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The Metaphysics of Ownership

Zippy Catholic had a great post the other day on the nature of property that got me thinking about legal property versus ontological properties. I think I have been able to tie his account of ownership of property to a metaphysical basis.

Zippy’s post is short and succinct – unlike this one – and worth a read. The most important bits for my purposes here are these:

But real authority which produces genuine moral obligations does not ultimately derive from the human will, either simpliciter or in some theoretical aggregation mediated through some heretical theory of consent of the governed. The foundation of real authority is Nature and Nature’s God. …

Property exists when an owner exercises fungible authority over subjects with respect to one or more objects.

By “object” we don’t mean physical objects: we mean the things in the property relation which are not subjects. Subjects are of course persons: moral agents with the capacity to choose behaviors.

Bear these paragraphs of Zippy’s in mind as you work your way through what follows. We don’t begin with them; rather, we are working our way toward them.

To begin then at the beginning: the form of a thing is ordered to its telos. The form of an acorn cannot be even partly that of a carburetor, or it won’t be able to produce an oak. If it is to act as an acorn acts, it has to have the form of an acorn, which is to say, all the properties of an acorn.

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Zippy Catholic has been interested in usury for some time now, and I have learned a lot about it from talking to him about it over the last few years. We’ve been having a colloquy over the last few days about whether government bonds constitute usury, which he has put up over at his site (here).

The basic thing to understand about usury, at least as St. Thomas approaches it, is that usury is selling what doesn’t actually exist. Zippy tried to explain this notion to me in a horribly long thread last year over at What’s Wrong with the World. The example that finally drove it into my understanding was this:

Zippy sells Lydia a $10K bond he has written, secured only by his promise to pay principal and interest (and not by any actual assets). Lydia in turn sells Kristor a similar $10K bond that she has written, again secured only by her promise to pay. Kristor then sells Zippy an exactly similar $10K bond that he has written. Note that no change has occurred in the real wealth – the real productive capacity, the causal power – of any of the three. If any one of them defaulted, they’d all default, and they’d all be in the same situation they had been in before any of the notes were sold.

This is more or less what happened in the Crash of 08.

When the Treasury sells you a bond that is backed only by its own promise to pay, does that constitute usury? Those of you who are into this kind of thing might want to check out what Zippy has to say on the subject. I’m not quite sure he’s convinced me, but neither am I sure I yet know exactly why I feel that way. Working on it!