What does progress and reform actually look like? 

Where is political and systemic compromise possible?

What does progress and reform actually look like?

If we were living a millennium in the future looking back on ourselves today, what might seem brutal?  What might seem obviously wrong?  What might seem good and work for a little while, but with 20/20 hindsight we can say the system was broken?

Roman law prohibited sale of a property – to anyone under any circumstances – while the property owner was behind on their property taxes.  This benefited Rome’s fiscus and ensured timely payments as well as ensuring tax write offs were ready to be handed as favors out by provincial administrators.  But being able to sell your property in order to satisfy the tax debt works much better.  That is why we use a “lien” today.  People just did not know the system would work better if they did things differently.  Everybody wins and the whole system works better for everyone.

What could we… what should we be doing differently? 


Title 47. Land cannot be purchased without the payment of taxes or balances which are due.

1. The Emperor Alexander to Capito.

An action will not lie in your favor against your stepmother and your father under an agreement which you allege was entered into between them by which she gave a tract of land as dowry, and agreed to pay the taxes to which it was liable, and this is the case even if the agreement is proved to have contained a stipulation. If, however, the land has been appraised, in order, as was stated in the instrument, that it might be given by way of dowry, the action on sale will not lie, although the agreement may be enforced.

Given on the Nones of December, during the third Consulate of the same Emperor, Consul for the third time, and Dio, 230.

2. The Emperor Constantine to Marcellus.

While examining the question of public contributions with reference to provisions, We have ascertained that the principal reason why the tax due is not paid is because certain persons, taking advantage of the temporary necessities of others, purchase lands under the condition of not paying any taxes which might be due on them to the Treasury, and possessed them free from all encumbrance; therefore it has been decided that if it should be proved that anyone had made a contract of this kind, and had obtained possession under this condition, he shall not only be liable for the ordinary taxes on the land which was purchased, but also for all these remaining unpaid, and as the person who bought it is required to pay the taxes thereon, no one shall be permitted to purchase or sell any property free from tax.

Given at Agrippina, on the Kalends of July, during the Consulate of Constantine, Consul for the fifth time, and Licinius, 319.

3. The Emperor Julian to Secundus, Praetorian Prefect.

All persons shall be liable for the public taxes imposed upon the land in their possession, and they can obtain no advantage from agreements to the contrary, where either the vendor or the donor himself desires to assume the payment of the taxes under the terms of an unlawful contract, even if the name of the new owner has not yet been placed upon the tax register, but that of the former proprietor of the land still remains, the parties themselves having been guilty of dissimulation in order that those not in possession might be compelled to pay instead of the actual possessors.

Given at Antioch on the fourteenth of the Kalends of March, during the Consulate of Julian, Consul for the fourth time, and Sallust, 363.

I, Justinian. The Civil Law: Volume 1. N.p.:, 2015.