The personal property tax has been characterized as one which falls upon the ignorant and the honest. Since such a small amount of the tax is assessed, the statement implies that a large majority of the taxpayers are dishonest. That the system is one well designed to lower the integrity of the citizenship to the level of the most unscrupulous cannot be denied. The classes of property which are usually exempt from assessment have already been noted, and it is often an easy matter to convert otherwise taxable property into one of these forms until after assessment day. The temptation to do so is at least presented.
The widespread dishonesty occurs in the failure to return to the assessor the full amount of taxable property. There is no possible way by which an assessor can reach certain classes of intangible property, and reliance must be placed upon the integrity of the owner to return it. That very few make such returns, even though oaths are often taken to that effect, is a matter of common knowledge. Most of these individuals are considered exemplary citizens, and would be highly incensed if they were confronted with the charge of dishonesty and perjury.
The present situation has come to exist largely as a weapon of self-defense. Every enlightened citizen recognizes the services of the state and is perfectly willing to bear his share of the burden. His objection arises, however, when he is asked to bear the burden which properly belongs elsewhere. Some dishonest individual in a community fails to return his property, and his neighbors know it. This not only means that he is going to escape the tax, but that it will be placed on the other citizens by a higher rate on the consequently smaller valuation. One does not have to look long at a list of assessments, which some districts require to be published, to see how pitifully small are the property returns of some of the wealthiest citizens.
Imagine the feelings of a young college instructor with nothing but ordinary furniture and one salary check in the bank, when he finds his personal property assessment higher than that of one of the leading bankers of his community, one of whose automobiles represents more value than the whole of the instructor's property. By the time the next assessment is made his conscience will doubtless have become so warped that his furniture will have depreciated in value, and the assessor will find out nothing about the salary check, even though the return be made under oath.
The conscience of most people rebels at the thought of committing murder, yet nearly everyone will shoot, if he has a chance, as a measure of self-defense. So it is in the case of property valuations - men whose honesty is above reproach, and who would shudder at the thought of falsifying under oath, repeatedly swear to false tax returns with scarcely a prick of the conscience. So it is those who are ignorant of the actual burdens, or who have too great a degree of integrity to act even in self-defense, who really bear the brunt of taxes upon intangible personal property.
Tax officials have long sensed the situation and have decried it in no uncertain terms. One can pick up reports of boards of assessors and boards of tax commissioners for the last fifty years, almost at random, and find the personal property tax denounced in scathing terms. Such expressions as the following may be easily found. "The system debauches the moral sense." "It is a school of perjury." "The tax falls upon the man who is scrupulously honest; upon the guardian, executor, and trustee, whose accounts are matters of public record." "The system has demoralizing and corrupting influences." "The system is debauching to the conscience and subversive of the public morals - a school for perjury, promoted by law." Pages might be given to citing opinions of various officials, but the inevitable conclusion would be the same - that the system has been a dismal failure.