I do not know why ND House Representative Dan Ruby, his patron, Robert Hale, and twenty three other listed people sponsored Ballot Measure 2. But I understand why many would be enamored with the ballot measure. Too often it seems that the state legislature does little to help North Dakotans who actually pay property tax. Helping outside business interests gets more focus. Those of us living along the flooded river valleys of the northwest quadrant have particularly good reason to be angry about property tax, because so many needed the help those tax dollars should have provided, and so little help came. Why should we pay property tax if we reap so few benefits from doing so? I have heard this question and asked this question many times—but would here suggest that our answer to it must be separate from our moral and civic responsibility to pay property tax.
The many reasons already put forth against Measure 2 have real merit. Measure 2 will hurt people living on fixed incomes. It will take away local control of resources, creating a big and distant governmental structure to fund statewide municipalities. It will specifically hurt North Dakota citizens, because we will pay the higher sales taxes that replace property taxes. Big business ventures most often buy materials in other states and ship in rather than purchase locally, so they may gain from Measure 2—while those of us actually living here cannot easily do so. Et cetera. But beyond such practical considerations against Measure 2, there is also a strong moral reason not to eliminate property taxes, because property ownership is the means by which people are vested in a community and vice versa. Property owners have essential rights within their respective communities, and they also have essential obligations that others do not.
Our traditional understanding of ‘property’ and ‘rights’ is so joined at the hip that we do not think of one without the other, and of neither outside the rule of law. The seventeenth century English philosopher John Locke first discussed property in this traditional sense. Locke noted that all of us hold God’s gift of land and the fruits thereof in common, but that each of us makes God’s gift partly our own to varying degrees by our labor and our work. What we take from the state of nature, and mix with our labor, results in something belonging to us–our property—whether our labor creates moveable property, such as a painting or a musical score, or fixed property, such as a building, or land–the Blackacre of soil we tend and upon which we live.
It is this principle of property as something given to all by God, but annexed to individuals by virtue of their labor that constitutes the basis of a stable society, for all may labor and all may own, and what we own we defend. We stand on it, by it, and with it, and this is how property ownership stabilizes society, for it gives people purpose, self generated value, and the urgency to give both voice and hand in defense of what we own. The right to own property thus serves as the doctrinal or regulative foundation upon which our sense of self determination, individuality, and inalienable rights are fully expressed. And while all of us in the United States and elsewhere are understood as born with certain inalienable rights, property ownership becomes their optimal manifestation. This is why as individuals we hold as sacred the right to create and thus own property. At the same time, it is this sacred right that also defines our responsibilities within a community.
Property owners get more from their community—or at least they should, doctrinally—and they also give more. Rightly or wrongly, schools, libraries, public buildings are all built by property owners for property owners, those who stand as permanent members of a community created and enlarged from taxation. In keeping with this link between the property owner and the public buildings and works built through taxation, local, state, and federal governments recognize certain rights and benefits as especially belonging to the individual property owner. Property owners get mortgage interest deductions, for example, and can more easily itemize expenses on their taxes, saving money. Renters, by contrast, do not have to pay property tax, or school tax, for that matter. These taxes are drawn from those who are bound to the land, so to speak, and whose presence is of a more permanent, stabilizing nature within a community. In effect, the children of renters go to school for free, because in theory, they are not permanent, propertied members of the community, even as it is hoped that they may become as such one day. And this is the jist–rightly or wrongly, society as we have created it is based on the stable role of the property owner, for it is the property owner who will be the last to run when the going gets tough, who will pay the heaviest price in times of calamity, but who will also collectively create and perpetually confirm community, come hell or high water. Confirmation of the individual right and individual place within a community essentially comes in the form of the property tax–just what Measure 2 would nullify.
How does property tax confirm community, by design? Just as our founding fathers all read Locke, they also read Rousseau, the 18th century philosopher whose theory of the “Social Contract” most influenced the creation of our democracy. Without Rousseau, there never would have been either an American or a later French Revolution based on brotherhood, equality, and liberty. Rousseau offered a very practical and reasonable approach to creating a better society. We all want to be individuals, he acknowledged. We all want to do what we want, when we want it. This is human nature. We are selfish animals. At the same time, as individuals mature and experience life, they realize that there are many difficulties too great for any one individual to bear. As a result, Rousseau asserts, individuals must give up a portion of their private desire in order to join with others for mutual protection. This is our Social Contract, made with others–reluctantly perhaps–but of necessity, for the good of both ourselves and others.
Since the problems of the modern world come in many forms, the way in which we partly surrender ourselves to the greater protective good is through taxation. Tax dollars stand in for us, serving as a moveable fluid means by which protections can be put in place when and where they are needed—when we have to travel far and need a good road, when we must count on a bridge to cross a river, when we turn old and doddery, have a disabling accident, or experience an epic flood–just as we did in the western river valleys last year. This sense of a greater shared good to which we all contribute is eliminated through Measure 2. It is lost because while Measure 2’s sales taxes may take the place of property tax monetarily, it creates a greater loss through separating people of property from the social rights and responsibilities that go along with that property. In effect, Measure 2 renounces the tie binding people to their community. Take taxation of the propertied individual away, and what is left? People shifting for themselves, separate from any sense of their place within a social whole except as purchasers, with an eye only for themselves.
When we pay property tax, we contribute to something larger than ourselves, whereas if we simply buy a candy bar or a new car that has as its price an increased tax included, we have done what we want for ourselves alone, with little sense of fulfilling the obligation we have to our place in the world—to our community. This is how Measure 2 hurts more than helps. It makes us all again in effect self involved children who pay only for what is privately wanted, who never have to connect the dots between actions and consequences, ourselves and others, save through purchase and express self gratification. By severing the tie between taxation and moral investment in community, Measure 2 undermines community, and minimizes our sense of citizenship, so is a morally bankrupt and bankrupting idea.
We can argue about how much an individual or family should rightly give of themselves to the state through taxation, but it stands against the principle of community to ditch the tax on our property altogether. If we are not getting the help we need and expect as a result of the social contract made when we pay our taxes, consider that the problem stems from an unjust reapportionment of our tax dollars by legislators. Replace them, but keep the ties designed to build and hold community, the ones that protect us in time of need, and in every important civic way, link us each to each. Vote against Measure 2.
Robert E. Kibler, Burlington, ND
10120 South Project Road