I’ve made reference before to the concept of “allodial rights” or “allodial land rights,” the idea that a person’s land is his, completely and absolutely. The land is not a grant subject to the authority of any king or magistrate, or subordinated into smaller plots under one governing authority; rather, the land belongs fully to the landowner.
When writing my piece Saturday about the Dukes and their struggle with the Town Council in Society Hill, South Carolina, I found a piece at The Center for Social Leadership on the topic of allodial rights. The piece argues that allodial land rights—which are the norm in the United States—differ from those of the feudal system. In a feudal system, the lord or king of a land controls all of the land, and leases or grants that land to subsidiaries with certain fees or obligations to the lord in exchange for the use of the land.
Under an allodial system, however, every landowner owns his land free and clear (or has the potential to do so), and is not subject to any higher authority in the use, maintenance, and disbursement of that land. He is, essentially, the king of his parcel.
Of course, that’s never completely true. The use of the land is subject to the restrictions of local ordinances. Some towns enforce certain minimum standards of upkeep, and issue fines for particularly dilapidated and dangerous structures on private property. Local governments assess property taxes; if those taxes go unpaid long enough, the government can and will strip you of your land.
I think of property taxes as a necessary evil, but an evil nonetheless: most localities don’t have a better way to fund most of their operations (besides business licensing fees, franchise fees, and the like), and property taxes are the only consistent way to make sure the bulk of residents are paying something into the local or county coffers.
The consequence of that, however, is that you never truly own your house, and you’re at the whim of the county assessor and the local authority responsible for setting property tax rates (“millage” here in South Carolina). Most assessors seem pretty honest about the assessed value of homes, but a crooked assessor could easily appraise the value of your home far above its actual market value—resulting in a steeper tax bill.
As for the local governing authority—usually a county or city council (or both)—one of the few safeguards against sudden, dramatic increases in millage is the hope that member of that authority themselves own property, and won’t want to see their bills rise. That’s often not enough, though to stop increases (it’s probably also a strong argument in favor of property ownership to either vote or to hold public office: a homeowner is far less likely to make decisions that could affect homeowners—himself included—adversely than a renter [of course, the renter himself would face increased rents on the more heavily-taxed property]).
Unfortunately, I don’t see any better alternative. A local consumption tax (like the popular penny option sales tax) increase could cover some costs, but it depends on residents spending their dollars locally, which is not guaranteed in this age of Internet shopping. Increasing business licensing fees just puts a greater burden on businesses—an may run them and their licensing fees and property tax dollars out of town.
Still, the appeal of pure allodial land rights is strong. For the most part, my instinct is that most Americans—at least in red States—can use their land as they wish, with the obvious exceptions (I couldn’t open a hog rendering plant on my property without my neighbors’ consent—nor would I want to do so). Local ordinances should strive to preserve as much of that freedom as possible, while also taking into account the needs of the town or county at-large. In any conflict, the individual’s property rights should be prioritized as much as possible without harming the cohesion and rights of the community members at large.
It’s a tricky balance. “Every Man a King,” as the old Huey Long slogan went, might not be feasible (and is destructive in the way he meant it), but when it comes to allodial land rights, it’s a worthy ideal. Like most ideals, however, it isn’t always achievable.