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The un-American sin of property taxes

By Selwyn Duke
web posted June 18, 2012

When North Dakotans went to the polls last Tuesday, they had a chance to strike a blow for freedom and make their state the first in the nation to ban all property taxes.  Unfortunately, though, the referendum was defeated soundly.  With such levies having become a fixture on the American landscape, the proposal was seen as just being too radical.  But was it, really?

I say it is property taxes themselves that are radical. 

I've always objected to property taxes because they do violence to the concept of property ownership.  After all, what am I describing when saying the following: I have to pay a fee on a regular basis to stay in a home or apartment, and if I don't I will be evicted from it?

That is the status of a renter -- not a landowner.

Any which way you slice it, property tax is rent you pay to the government.  Sure, we don't call it that.  But if the effect is the same, what's the difference?  And government, with its "surcharges" and "assessments," is infamous for conjuring up euphemisms for its excessive and unjust taxes.

Note that in my fourth-paragraph question I wrote, "I have to pay a fee on a regular basis to stay in a home or apartment…."  There's a good reason why I didn't write "my home or apartment."  After all, if I can be evicted for not paying rent-by-another name, do I truly own it?

In reality, our property-tax system smacks of Old World Manorialism, which became "patroonship" in colonial New York and New Jersey -- only Big Brother is now the Lord of the Manor.  And woe betide the peasant who can't pay his rent.

Just consider the plight of a responsible American family that, due to illness, our poor economy or the death of a breadwinner, can no longer afford to pay rent to the Big Brother of the Manor.  Their home may be paid off; they may have lived in it for 20 years.  But none of that matters when you don't really own it but are just a renter.  They'll be out of luck and perhaps out on the streets, joining the ranks of the homeless.    

Despite all this, many find it unfathomable that we should end our modern-day manorial system.  As The New York Times wrote prior to the vote on the ND proposal:

An unusual coalition of forces, including the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce and the state's largest public employees' unions, vehemently oppose the idea, arguing that such a ban would upend this quiet capital [Bismarck].  Some big unanswered questions, the opponents say, include precisely how lawmakers would make up some $812 million in annual property tax revenue; what effect the change would have on hundreds of other state laws and regulations that allude to the more than century-old property tax; and what decisions would be left for North Dakota's cities, counties and other governing boards if, say, they wanted to build a new school, hire more police, open a new park.

Ah, the old "where will the government get the money?" line.  Frankly, I don't worry about such things because that should never be the first question when pondering tax issues.  It should be: where will the people get the money?  It is, after all, theirs, and isn't this supposed to be a government of, by and for the people?

Of course, the elimination of property taxes would mean that governments would have to adjust their tax structure.  But so what?  Doesn't the citizen who falls on hard times (often due to bad government policy, mind you) and whose home is seized by Big Brother of the Manor have to adjust?  Does government worry how the people will adjust when making some sweeping policy change (e.g., ObamaCare)?  It's time for the government to do some adjusting for a while.

Unfortunately, the elimination of modern-day Manorialism is a tough sell even among many conservatives.  To be "conservative," after all, is to oppose big changes and preserve the status quo.  As an example, the Times wrote, "For his part, Gov. Jack Dalrymple, a Republican, said he opposed the property tax ban.  'It's mind-boggling, really,' he said, in an interview, of the effects of such a ban.  'We'd be changing everything, frankly.' 

All I can say is that were it not for a willingness to change "everything," our nation would never have been founded (see Washington, Hamilton, Paine, Madison, Adams, Henry et al.).

The First Continental Congress's Declaration on Colonial Rights stated that by "the immutable laws of nature" we are "entitled to life, liberty and property: and… have never ceded to any foreign power whatever, a right to dispose of either without…consent."  Shouldn't the same apply to a domestic power?

And then we have to ask: how foreign have our domestic powers become? ESR

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