A Brief History of Property Tax

A Brief History of Property Tax

By Richard Henry Carlson

Fair & Equitable (2005)

Abstract: Taxation has existed in various forms since civilization began. In days of old the source of wealth was land and its proceeds. Before the existence of a monetary system, taxes were paid by a percentage of crops raised. Through most of history, the tax assessor and the tax collector were the same person; therefore, “tax collector” is used interchangeably with “tax assessor” throughout the following paper. Some of the most common forms of taxation over the millennia were poll taxes, tariffs on goods, and property taxes on the value of land, buildings, and other personal property. The purpose of this paper is to present some of the major moments in the history of real and personal property taxation. Let’s take a short walk through time to understand what we have in common with our ancestor assessors, what we can learn from them, and how developed the current property tax system has come to be.

Introduction: The earliest known tax records, dating from approximately six thousand years B.C., are in the form of clay tablets found in the ancient city-state of Lagash in modern day Iraq, just northwest of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The king used a tax system called bala, which meant “rotation.” The assessors would focus on one area of the citystate, assessing and taxing one area each month, thereby breaking down the arduous task into more manageable components. (This is a lesson that we have used in present day Boston by not attempting to focus on all property in a revaluation year. Instead, we focus great attention on the valuation of retail and industrial property during one year, following up the next year with apartments or other sub-sets of property. This allows a thorough review of the various components of value and ultimately leads to better assessments.) In Lagash taxes were very low, but in a time of crisis or war the tax rate was ten percent of all goods, which were primarily composed of food.

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