The Once and Future Property Tax: A Dialogue with My Younger Self
Posted: 13 Feb 2003
As I look back on my youth (expansively defined as the first 40 years of my life), everywhere I went, the local real property tax was perceived as both bad and doomed. If I could speak with the brash young law student/graduate student/alderman I once was, he would undoubtedly tell me, with great confidence, that by the beginning of the next century (which then seemed very far away) the property tax would no longer play a role in the system of local public finance.
Alas, he was wrong.
This essay explains why the young man I once was, confident of the imminent demise of the property tax, was wrong. This is thus a dialogue with my younger self for, as I look back, it is clear that much of the critique of the local property tax to which I (and others) adhered was overstated. As we enter the new century, the local property tax survives for many reasons; chief among these is that the tax has distinct theoretical and practical advantages.
This is not to say that the standard local property tax is perfect or incapable of practical improvement; not everything I believed in my youth was wrong. But reality is indeed more complex than I and others thought: We overestimated the problems of the local property tax and underestimated the tax's virtues. We did not foresee the extent to which modifications of the tax and alternative revenue sources for localities would prove to be, not initial steps toward the abolition of the local property tax, but, rather, ameliorative reforms which would enable the real property tax to survive. We similarly underappreciated the need for robust local government to possess its own tax base and how well-adapted the local property tax is for financing genuinely local expenditures. We subscribed to overly-idealized notions of sales and income tax bases, forcing (in our minds, at least) the realities of the property tax into an inherently unwinnable competition with theoretically perfect alternatives for financing public services. The choices in the real world proved more difficult.
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