Suppose you are a senior citizen living in Greenburgh, New York (about a half-hour north of New York City). Suppose you receive a $620 Social Security check each month and you need a walker to get around. Further suppose that for the past forty-three years you have lived in the same modest house in which you had raised your family. Further suppose that you are paying about $12,000 a year in property taxes; and because you do not want to leave your home, you have already taken out a reverse mortgage just to pay the exorbitant property taxes. Audrey Davison is in this situation.
What else could you or Audrey Davison do? Well, in a program that seems almost like a parody—but sadly isn’t—the town of Greenburgh, according to an AP story, “is pushing a program that would let seniors work part-time, for $7 an hour, to help pay off some of their property taxes.”
Town supervisor Paul Feiner “is suggesting creating about 25 slots for seniors and letting them work off $500 or so a year. His proposal faces some obstacles. If the wages earned are to be tax-free and directly credited to the property tax bill, the state Legislature would have to approve. In addition, unions would have to be convinced that the program is no threat to their members’ job security.”
I’ve read many news accounts on this story, and incredibly, only one felt it worthwhile to mention that Greenburgh was increasing property taxes by 19.4 percent in 2008. Instead of focusing on the problem of high taxes, the new articles quoted “experts” such as Scott Parkin of the National Council on Aging. Parkin praised the program: “It’s certainly in line with what we stand for, keeping seniors involved in work or volunteering as a part of healthy aging.”
Volunteering? The widow in question, Audrey Davison, will hardly be volunteering; she will hardly be engaging in work that she would have chosen on her own. She is being forced to work by ruinous taxes. Nowhere in the new reports is there even a suggestion that the problem may lie with out-of-control spending that leads to high taxes. Instead, the level of taxes is simply accepted as a given.
Greenburgh’s program—rather than being innovative—is a disgraceful return to serfdom. Under medieval feudalism, serfs were forced to work. The town of Greenburgh and Supervisor Feiner have no more right to Davison’s labor than the medieval lord had to the serfs’ labor.
Paul Feiner ran for reelection this year. The “Friends of Paul Feiner” wrote of him: “Paul Feiner is an accomplished public servant. We support Paul because of his passionate commitment to issues that will better the lives of all Greenburgh and village residents. Paul has always been a leader for progressive causes in our town.”
Progressive or tyrannical? I will leave that to you. Sadly, I have no doubt that many Americans would view Feiner as a progressive. We have reached the point that as a nation, we are collectively incapable of understanding the most basic principles of liberty and of economics.
In this world, spending our way to bankruptcy and putting senior citizens in forced labor projects just to stay in their cherished homes is taken as a sign of being progressive. Reasoned dialogue on fundamental issues has been silenced. Since Feiner is proclaimed to be progressive, those who disagree are simply defined as reactionary and not worth listening too.
Very early in one his seminal works, The Road to Serfdom, Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek makes a striking observation about our failure to consider root causes of our problems. Simply, we have incredible hubris:
We are ready to accept almost any explanation of the present crisis of our civilization except one: that the present state of the world may be the result of genuine error on our own part and that the pursuit of some of our most cherished ideals has apparently produced results utterly different from those which we expected.
Hayek explains why we fail to look at real causes—we are blinded by our belief in our good intentions:
Have we not all striven according to our best lights, and have not many of our finest minds incessantly worked to make this a better world? Have not all our efforts and hopes been directed toward greater freedom, justice, and prosperity?
Good intentions are not enough. An understanding of the basic principles of sound economics and of liberty and the humility to realize when you have gotten way off course are necessary too.