Serfing U.S.A.


Well—here in California it's getting to be that time again: property tax bills have been mailed to all land "owners" in the state. I says "owners" advisedly—there is a very prevalent myth in modern American culture that insists that we are somehow different from the Communists, that here land is owned privately rather than by the State, that "a man's [sic] home is his castle," etc. Horsefeathers!

People don't own land in this country—they lease it from the government. And to say the lease is one-sided is to understate the case. The government tells you what you can do with the land (before you try to emulate the Russian serf raising chickens and vegetables on his home garden plot you better check with the zoning and animal control offices to see if you're allowed to have chickens, don't forget to apply for a building permit before you put up any sheds, and make sure the plants you raise are legal species), specifies how fancy your house has to be (if it's not fancy enough they'll tear it down as substandard and send you the bill for the work), can change the conditions of the "lease" at any time (through rezoning), can up the "rent" at any time (which puts them one-up over any civilian landlord), and can cancel the "lease" at any time (through condemnation or eminent domain).

You, in return, assume full liability for damages resulting from use of your property, can pass all these restrictions on to your heirs (if they don't have to sell the property to pay estate taxes), can try to make a profit by selling the lease-rights to someone else, and can in minor ways dictate others' behavior when they're on "your" property. All you have to do to maintain the lease is to pay your property tax; if you don't, after a few years you get evicted and some new sucker is found to take your place.

So why, if it's such a rip-off, do people scrimp and save just to buy "their" little bit of turf? Well, for one thing, there's collusion between governments: property taxes and mortgage interest payments can be written off against Federal and state taxes—this can be a big incentive. And with limited developed land, rising population, relatively cheap money, and inflation, property can be a good investment. But also, as I said, there's this myth—and according to this myth property taxes are not extortion monies paid to the thugs at the county seat but rather are for providing local services we all need and want. Sure. For instance, the county bureaucrats say I "need and want" a cemetery (I could buy a nice cremation for what that cemetery will cost me before I die!), mosquito abatement (maybe that one is worth it—at least there aren't many mosquitos around), transit buses (which are nice if you're big on waiting), flood control (I live on high ground), a state water project (my $3 per year gives me the right to buy the project's water—if other local residents and I ever build a 150 mile aqueduct across the mountains to where the project is!), a couple of sewer and water districts (this is in addition to monthly service charges), and a fire district (I doubt if I'll get a rebate for the eight days the firemen were on strike this year). This is all on top of the regular county taxes, which finance assorted welfare measures, a hefty bureaucracy, and the local sheriff (who can't spare an officer for rape investigation or prevention, apparently because all his spare deputies are busy keeping the local beaches safe from nudists). And oops!—I almost forgot the school taxes, which compose almost two-thirds of the tax bill.

There is one bright cloud on the horizon, however: fewer and fewer people are buying the myth. As more and more couples remain childless, they start to question why they must subsidize the schooling of someone else's children; and even parents are starting to question financing public schools that bus their children all over the countryside but don't teach them to read or write. Retired people are really getting the message—with property taxes based on the market value of the home (and that rising yearly) they are frequently finding themselves in a situation where their mortgage payments (negotiated maybe 20 years ago) are less than their tax payments and the combination of the two is much more than they can afford. Under those conditions they are finding that they don't need or want many government services at all!

The problem is what to do besides bitch and moan about the injustice of it all. To a libertarian the obvious solution is to do away with taxes and let people buy only those services they want from wherever they want. Tax rebels have been saying this for years and advocating direct resistance—but they're saying it mainly about the Feds and the IRS while overlooking taxes closer to home.

Yet the property tax is a perfect target—everyone lives somewhere and so pays the tax, either directly or in the form of increased rent. But even more importantly, the people who set the tax rate and who collect the money are available, living locally and hence susceptible to "social pressure." The older people who are hit hardest by the tax are also the people with the most leisure—they have time to go to meetings and apply the pressure. There's rarely any jail term mandated for nonpayment of property taxes, since they can seize the property instead; but again, because of the local nature of the tax the machinery of seizure has a long time lag built in so as to give the citizen maximum time to pay. This makes resisting the tax low-risk (typically only a small penalty fee) and hence capable of drawing more adherents than relatively high-risk IRS resistance.

What I'm leading up to, of course, is the idea of property tax strikes—already being organized in many parts of California. Local governments can't deficit finance—they need the money up front. So don't give it to them (even holding out for six months will screw them up). At the very least you can bargain for a lower tax rate via their cutting costs; but maybe you'll strike it lucky and inspire the formation of nongovernmental alternatives—private utilities, fire departments, schools, etc.

But you'll have to watch it—the bureaucrats will try sneaky things: they'll try to buy off the residential property owners by promising to freeze assessments; they'll try to switch funding for pet projects to state or Federal taxes (which will only fuel resistance to those taxes), or—very likely, and very bad if they get away with it—they'll try for a new tax such as a value-added tax. Don't let them get away with it!

When the serfs in the middle ages stopped supporting feudalism, that system was brought to its knees—maybe we 20th century serfs can finish the job.

Copyright© 1975 by Lynn Kinsky