Wow. Time really does fly, though I can attest to the fact it doesn’t care whether you’re having fun or not. It’s hard to believe that it has been nearly three years since I completed my first and, until now, only post here. I won’t bore you with the bits of life that distracted me and got in the way, as they are immaterial to our time together. I have been paying my property taxes (as, I’m sure, have many of you) in the interim, and I’m still quite fanatical in my opposition to their existence.
In my first post, we touched on the core truth that most people, for whatever reason, don’t recognize about property taxes. You don’t own your home, nor your farm, nor the building in which your business is domiciled; the government does. I repeat myself, and plan to continue beating that same unsightly, undead horse — albeit briefly — with every entry I make as it is critical that this central premise be clear to as many people as possible.
One of the key elements to the property tax is that it exists in perpetuity. No matter who holds title to the property in question, no matter their means of having acquired it, they must pay and regardless in what life situation they may find themselves, the government stands ready to cast them out in the street if they don’t render tribute.
I have no doubt that some readers are already questioning my hold on reality for relating our modern system of supporting various things like schools, libraries, fire and police protection, and myriad other things with what is considered by many to be an oppressive form of human relations. While property taxes certainly do pay for many things often thought of as “public goods”, things considered by many to be absolute necessities for normal modern life, if we are being honest, we must admit that the property tax is not required to pay for such things. Myriad other means for funneling dollars to those entities are available, even if we remain tethered to strictly public sources.
As an example, in my own state, property tax and income taxes vary from county to county, with each county’s governing body determining which source is to cover the costs associate with each such good. While I am certainly not a supporter of all the things done with tax money, I am not making the case here that we should stop paying for any of the things for which property taxes are collected; I am merely suggesting that our current means of paying for these results in a society that, in many respects, resembles that of medieval times.
Let’s start with a quick definition, shall we?
feudalism: the system of political organization prevailing in Europe from the 9th to about the 15th centuries having as its basis the relation of lord to vassal with all land held in fee and as chief characteristics homage, the service of tenants under arms and in court, wardship, and forfeiture
There are certainly words in that definition not in common usage; if you’d like to take a moment to brush up on the linked definitions (I had to, to be sure), I’ll wait…
You’re back. Good. So, to summarize, feudalism had the following key characteristics:
- Land was owned by the lord
- The vassal was subservient to the lord
- The vassal publicly acknowledged that subservience (homage) and vowed service to the lord
- The vassal’s rights to the land were conditional upon that homage and service
- Land was subject to forfeiture if the vassal’s sworn obligations were not met
In stark contrast, we have the modern system under property tax:
- Land is owned by the state
- The citizen is considered subservient to the state
- The citizen publicly acknowledges this subservience and vows service to the state
- The citizen’s use of the property is conditional upon that public acknowledgement of subservience and continued service
- Land is subject to forfeiture if the citizen’s sworn obligations are not met
I’m sure many of you are shaking your heads, thinking this guy has clearly lost it. I will concede that there are differences, but they are deceptively small. For clarity, when I use the word “state”, please note it is a small “s”, representing government at all levels, from the municipality up.
Land is owned by the state
I’ve covered that enough for today and, as promised, will continue to do so.
The citizen is considered subservient to the state
Referring to the first point, yes, you voted them in, and you can vote them out (more on this later). However, you pay the state to occupy the land. You may use the land only in the ways allowed by the state (think zoning), in many cases, you must maintain the land in a manner acceptable to the state (consider the numerous ordinances concerning length of grass, historical preservation, etc.), and the countless other ways the state controls for what purpose, in what way, and even at what time you may use what you had previously considered “your” property. While many may argue that there are very good reasons for all of these controls — for the record, I don’t disagree with many of them — the fact of the matter remains that the property owner is most certainly subservient to the state when it comes to the use of land.
The citizen publicly acknowledges this subservience and vows service to the state
This one is a bit less clear, at first, but it is still quite true.
When you are given title to a property, you must go through closing. If you have a mortgage, a majority of the documentation is related to this element of the transaction. Fair lending disclosures, the note, the HUD statement, and on and on. Whether or not you have a mortgage, however, some documentation is still required. You must record the transaction with the appropriate state entity (usually the County Recorder). By doing so, you are literally going on record as having taken over the rights of use and responsibilities of tenancy for the land in question.
You are also implicitly agreeing to serve the state so long as you occupy that land. While it is most certainly not a direct form of service as seen in medieval times, for most of us the act of service is only one step removed from performing direct physical labor as a vassal of old. While some folks don’t have to work for a living (no, I’m not talking about congress), most of us do. Even if you have long since retired, the money in your pension, 401k, savings, or mattress — your wealth — represents the proceeds of your direct labor at some point in the past plus any growth due to risks you took with those proceeds. When you record the transaction, you are implicitly agreeing to dedicate some portion of your wealth, on a regular basis to pay the property taxes due on the property so long as you hold the deed. It doesn’t matter whether the amount goes up or down, how much it changes, or what kind of year you’ve had.
The citizen’s use of the property is conditional upon that public acknowledgement of subservience and continued service
Very plainly, if you don’t file the papers, you don’t get title in the eyes of the state.
Land is subject to forfeiture if the citizen’s sworn obligations are not met
If you don’t honor the commitment to service by paying the taxes from the fruits of your labor, you will eventually lose the use of and access to that property. While there is a grace period, if you don’t pay, you will eventually be forced off what you had thought all along was “your” land. Refuse to leave as instructed by the state, and the consequences will become much more dire, and may do so quickly. Regardless what problems or hardships you endured, no matter if you have cancer and your life savings have been decimated, at the end of the day, the state will be standing at the door, much like Ray Liotta‘s portrayal of Henry Hill in Goodfellas, waiting to say “Screw you. Pay me.”
Well that sucks; what do we do now?
As I mentioned previously, there is a key difference between our current situation and medieval forms of feudalism. In terms of our relationship with the state regarding the land we occupy, we are clearly subservient. We are, however, fortunate in that the state is, to a degree, subservient to our wishes via the ballot box. If enough people get this message and care enough to do something about it, we can effect change. It may seem like it will take as long as it would the proverbial million monkeys to yield the works of Shakespeare, it isn’t quite that bad. Sure, there will be many roadblocks; life without property taxes is different and people are typically very resistant to change. Some of them will be afraid that their sacred cows will be gored, and others will work to block such change because of the (often faulty) belief that holding real estate implies wealth and the ability to absorb the cost for the various social goods supported; they consider such an arrangement to be “fair”. Imagine a widow who, after having paid tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in property taxes without ever having directly used any of the benefits for which those taxes paid, loses her home due to inability to pay. Would she think it’s fair? Would you? I sure don’t. The mere fact that the system is set up in such a way that such an event could happen is reason enough to want to eliminate it in my mind.
If you’ve made it this far, I’m assuming you’re already at least a bit pissed if you’ve never thought about property tax in this way, so for starters, share this concept. Whether it is through sharing this blog, writing your own, or sharing other sites that explain this information, spread the word. Talk to your friends, talk to your family, get them pissed. Write a blog, create art work, rant at open mic night; use your unique talents. Write your State’s legislators. They’ll think you’re crazy, at least at first (mine did), but be persistent. Convince your loved ones to do the same. It is only through grassroots action that making any change has a chance. In some States, eliminating the property tax would require a change in that State’s constitution. It won’t be easy, but it should and CAN be done.