September 14, 2011 —
How often have you heard this remark used, whether in a private conversation or a public meeting, to preface someone’s opinions about what a town’s policies should be or how its codes should be written? We’ve heard it fairly frequently over the years, including recently, without really stopping to question it. Although those who utter it don’t spell out why they consider it relevant, the implications seem clear enough. The speaker pays a lot of taxes; tax revenues are what a town uses to operate; therefore the speaker ought to have a lot of say in how the town is governed. And on a prima facie basis, this certainly seems fair enough.
But when you start thinking about it more carefully, this statement starts us down a very slippery slope indeed. Because if the amount of taxes one pays—on a municipal level, proportional to the value of one’s real property and therefore, in general, to one’s wealth—is what determines the say one should have in government, then the people who are wealthier should have more say in government than the people who are poorer. And perhaps those who rent should have no say at all.
Is this really the community we want to live in? Is it the country we want to live in?
To be fair, the argument that property ownership should determine political power has a venerable history in this country. In the nation’s early days, only white male property owners were allowed to vote; it wasn’t until about 1860 that suffrage became universal for white men. It is partly on this basis that we are starting to hear some members of the modern-day Tea Party call for the restriction of voting to property owners: supposedly, if it was good enough for the Founding Fathers it should be good enough for us.
On the other hand, if that reasoning were conclusive, we ought also to revoke voting rights for women and people of color.
We believe, on the contrary, that the history of this country is an unfolding evolution of the basic ideals presented in the Declaration of Independence: that all men are created equal, and that they have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Add in the stipulation that women and persons of color belong to the human race, and we don’t see any way in which this nation could have elaborated and fulfilled its destiny as a haven of liberty without conceding that each person should have an equal vote.
For instance, the whole idea of “pursuit of happiness” depends on equality of opportunity. If property owners should have more say in government than non-property owners, it seems to follow that bigger property owners should have more say than smaller property owners. Apportion power this way, and one would expect the rulers over time to use their votes to aggrandize their own power and wealth, and adopt policies that will cut their own tax rates at the expense of programs, like those supporting education, that will help poorer families make their way up the ladder. Make power proportional to wealth, in other words, and what will tend to emerge is an aristocracy.
In fact, bluntly, this is pretty much what we are seeing now at the national level—not because votes have been apportioned to property ownership in the literal sense, but because dollars spent on lobbying and Supreme Court decisions equating money with free speech have effectively given the wealthy more power than everybody else. This has solidified the power of a small elite and is increasingly keeping the poor and middle class from bettering themselves.
Barring a radical turnover in the composition of the Supreme Court, it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot that we can do about this problem at the national level. But we can at least be more vigilant at the local level. And one way is to be more reflective about seemingly innocuous phrases like “I pay a lot of taxes in this town,” and what they imply about local governance.
We all have a stake in our communities. We all pay in accordance with our means. Our contributions range from taxes to volunteer work to acts of neighborly kindness to the goods and services we provide to our neighbors via our jobs. We should all have a voice in our community meetings. And those voices should be given equal weight, regardless of what we own.