Over the years, since the introduction of HB 1776, thousands of words have been put into print both pro and con on the issue of School Property Tax Elimination. Today, with HB 1776 morphing into SB 76, those conversations continue but all too often a subject related to the issue falls void from the discussion.
10,000 people each year face the possibility of having their homes seized because of an inability to keep up with the demands of the school property tax. Many have faced foreclosure and bankruptcy…some even forced to abandon their property. Pennsylvania has 350,000 abandoned homes across the Commonwealth.
Thousands more are forced to sell their homes. Countless others who rent are forced to move elsewhere seeking more affordable rental homes as a result of rising rent impacted by the ever increasing school property tax.
We know it’s a problem and the government has enacted things like homestead exemptions, rent rebate programs, rent subsidies, clean and green and yet none of these fixes actually fix the problem. The number of people who still can’t keep up with the taxes only increases not decreases with each new government program and bureaucracy created. Those new programs and bureaucracies require funding from others to make them work.
In attempting to fix the problems we’ve lost our way and instead of fixing problems, we succeed only in creating new ones that further violate our individual rights.
Shortly after the Declaration of Independence was penned many of the colonies established Constitutions to form the rule of laws in the newly declared Independent Colonies. Pennsylvania was among the first to do so having enacted a Commonwealth Constitution in September of 1776. That Constitution began with a declaration of rights and the first section under that article declared
“I. That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and inalienable rights, amongst which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
There was a reason this was listed first. The founders of our Commonwealth recognized the sanctity of a person’s home. Sections 5, 10, 11 and 13 of that first Constitution also dealt with securing the protection of a person’s home. Of the 16 declared rights, 1/3 of them dealt with the sanctity of a person’s home.
240 years later the Constitution of this Commonwealth still contains those protections even as the declared rights expanded from the original 16 to the current 28 but somehow the regard for the sanctity of the home does not carry the same weight as it once did.
When America was founded it was established as a Republic. There is an often repeated story of Ben franklin encountering a young woman who, after the completion of the Constitution asked Franklin what type of government we were given to which he is said to have replied “A Republic, if you can keep it!”
Why, of all forms of government, did our founders choose a Republic. It is because only under a Republic can the rights of the individual remain protected. Under a Democracy the majority can vote away the rights of any individual or small group of people. A Republic required a rule of law and our Constitutions were to be the Rule of Law, all other laws that were to follow were supposed to adhere to the superior Constitution, first to the Constitution of the State and then to a federal Constitution.
The rights of the individual were important. Many years later Ayn Rand would phrase that concept with these words:
Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual).
15 years before the writing of the Declaration of Independence the English Crown began enforcing Writs of Assistance in the colonies. These Writs allowed for search and seizure of individual property without a system of protection through due process violating the sanctity of one’s home. In arguing against these Writs James Otis of Boston said:
Now, one of the most essential branches of English liberty is the freedom of one’s house. A man’s house is his castle; and whilst he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle.
Otis was simply stating that, no matter how humble, a person’s home is a sacred right and when left alone, as in not being interfered with by his neighbors and government, will live like a prince. From those words, if we are to trust John Adams, then and there the child liberty was born in America.
The sanctity of a person’s home was understood as the foundation of all rights and was supposed to be the reason for laws. As John Locke had written, the reason we formed society in the first place was for the mutual protection of our rights to property.
One would be a fool to blindly believe that once of Governments, both state and federal, were established that the declared rights were immediate and applied to all. Our Constitutions were established to move us toward a vision of a land where the rights of the individual would be protected and the violations of those rights by some who held to the collectivist majority viewpoint would be defeated.
The battle to end slavery, the battle for the rights of women, the struggle for civil rights are all rooted, not in ethnic or sexual differences but in the equal rights of all women and while we still aren’t perfect we’ve made tremendous strides in that direction. In fact, when it comes to the protection of individual rights we have continually tried to move forward in every area except in the protection of the rights of the individual when it comes to the recognition of the sanctity of the individual’s home. There, we have taken strides backwards.
The power of government and it’s created bureaucracies has worked to undermine the individual right to a person’s home. In the name of the collective the abuses against the individual and their home grows.
Ayn Rand described this wonderfully:
Since Man has inalienable individual rights, this means that the same rights are held, individually, by every man, by all men, at all times. Therefore, the rights of one man cannot and must not violate the rights of another.
For instance: a man has the right to live, but he has no right to take the life of another. He has the right to be free, but no right to enslave another. He has the right to choose his own happiness, but no right to decide that his happiness lies in the misery (or murder or robbery or enslavement) of another. The very right upon which he acts defines the same right of another man, and serves as a guide to tell him what he may or may not do.
Let’s apply that same thinking to the pension debacle. While it can be argued that the law, as it is written, entitles those in the public sector to a pension, that same law has exaggerated the school property tax to such a degree that the right to that pension has become dependent upon violating the right of the individual to their home. If they can’t keep up with the pension demands their home must be forfeited to make way for another individual who can meet that tax obligation in support of the pension. This then becomes a fundamentally flawed system of taxation where the self-declared claims of one group becomes predatory, not complimentary, upon the rights of another.
We may think that fixing the pension problem with end this but as the property tax is misused today, the property tax will always violate the right of the individual to their home.
Nobody is arguing that we do not have an obligation to fund the necessary functions of government. The argument is about using our homes to fund those functions. Those who wish to cling to the property tax go to great extent to avoid actually talking about the property tax itself. They will talk about all of the peripheral elements but when it comes to the property tax, can any individual who actually believes in the rights of the individual actually defend using a person’s home to fund any function of government.
For the majority of people, the home is not a revenue generator. It doesn’t make a profit for them. Yes, over time a home may generate equity but that equity doesn’t translate into an ability to pay an ever increasing annual property tax. The homeowner cannot really realize that equity until the home is sold.
For the majority of people, the home is a place to build a family. The home contains a lifetime of memories where children are growing or have grown and departed to start their own families in their own homes. How many parents whose children have moved out still refer to rooms in their home by the child who grew up in that room? Our homes become a place where even those who have departed from life still hold a treasured place. No human being should be forced out of that home by taxation. If they decide to move, that’s one thing, but government force through taxation is something altogether different.
Property tax has become a violation of the sanctity of the home through the force of law so the question remains, is it a just force of law?
Let’s return to Ayn Rand
A right cannot be violated except by physical force. One man cannot deprive another of his life, nor enslave him, nor forbid him to pursue his happiness, except by using force against him. Whenever a man is made to act without his own free, personal, individual, voluntary consent—his right has been violated.
Therefore, we can draw a clear-cut division between the rights of one man and those of another. It is an objective division—not subject to differences of opinion, nor to majority decision, nor to the arbitrary decree of society. No man has the right to initiate the use of physical force against another man.
The importance of the home can be seen through the lengths of what people will go through to establish that home and once established, to keep it. The entire argument of the stability of the property tax as a source of revenue is predicated upon the instability it causes in the lives individuals. Many people will cut back on food, clothing, medical needs in order to meet their property tax obligation in their attempts to hold on to their homes. They will borrow against their equity. They will even resort to reverse mortgages all in their attempts to hold on to their home while meeting an unreasonable tax obligation.
In other forms of taxation, the tax is levied on a solid measure of worth. A sales tax on the purchase price, an income tax on actual income but the property tax is levied on an assumed worth of property that cannot possibly reflect that actual fair market value of the property. Both the sales tax and income tax are limited and controlled by ability to pay but that is not the case with property tax.
Government is force; like fire it is a dangerous servant — and a fearful master. Left unchecked, when the fire of government burns too wildly it consumes while ending its usefulness no longer serving us but keeping us in fear.
Those who feel the comfort of the fire while not reflecting of the cost of the flames that fuel that fire do so at their own peril. For a time, they may find the comfort that provides them temporary warmth but soon those flames will grow to require the kindling of their neighbor’s homes and then their own and, once there, it’s too late to then say the government must extinguish those flames. Your home is already burning. The damage…the loss…is already there.
For many in Pennsylvania the property tax fire has already consumed them. We can choose to ignore that. We can say the few homes consumed by the force of those fires is not significant enough to do anything about it. We can pretend that we are simply warming our hands in our own comfort or we can stop and realize that our comfort has come at the expense of force of the violation of the rights of others and we can admit that this is a moral wrong. We can stop the governmental pillaging of the sanctity of our homes and start standing up for the rights of the individual, thus standing up for our own rights.
Any other course of action will only perpetuate making more and more of us fuel for the fires of government instead of a government that serves the people in the protection of the rights, the most fundamental of which is the right to property.