Belgium’s Multi-Million Dollar Sheep

But not the bionic or cloned marvels you may be imagining

As the horrors of World War II began gradually to fade and reconstruction became the topic of daily conversation, many European countries found themselves short of cash. Yes, the US Marshall Plan was very promising but it would come nowhere near to covering all the costs of attempting to rebuild entire societies and economies ravished by war. Belgium in particular was struggling to balance its books, having been a major battle-ground across which the Axis and Allied forces shot, shelled, and bombed each other with alacrity.

Not surprisingly, most governments turned to the idea of increasing taxation in order to bridge the gap between revenues and expenditures. As most ordinary working people were still struggling to get by, however, there were fewer options available than eager governments would have liked. In the end most European countries created a range of ad hoc taxes that were more or less aimed at those who’d inherited their wealth. After all, unlike most people, these folk actually had something to spare. Belgium took this path and decided to tax people based on the amount of land and size of house(s) they owned.

Farms, however, would be excepted because it would have been economically insane to tax farmers in the same way. Even bureaucrats and politicians occasionally have brief moments of something approaching lucidity.

Today in civilized nations like the USA, wealthy people pay expensive tax attorneys to utilize loopholes in complex tax law so as to minimize the tax they pay. Very wealthy people simply buy enough politicians (by way of perfectly legitimate campaign contributions and contributions to PACs, as well as by way of invitations to private islands, exclusive events, trips to exotic locations, and so forth) to have suitable laws written to reduce their tax burden even more.

Back in the post-war period, however, Europeans lacked these opportunities. They therefore had to be a little more personally creative, and few are as creative when it comes to avoiding taxes as the Belgian upper classes.

And that’s where our multi-million-dollar sheep come into the picture.

Most wealthy Belgians of the period had inherited chateaux and other large properties in the countryside as well as primary residential homes in major cities like Antwerp and Brussels. There wasn’t much they could do to avoid taxes on city apartments and houses, but they could certainly do something about their chateaux, surrounded by large swathes of green and pleasant land.

Taxes on property were to be assessed in the time-honored manner: once a year, on an agreed date, a tax inspector would visit the area and record details of each property. Farms would be marked as exempt while non-farm properties would be marked to be liable for the new taxes. This was taken to be the simplest and most foolproof method to use and would provide much-needed employment for many regional bureaucrats.

Much to the surprise of the central government, after the first year’s assessments were gathered and collated, it turned out that nearly all the supposedly idle properties around Belgium were in fact working farms. This was wonderful news, as it meant that Belgium would surely be food-sufficient and precious foreign currency would be spared from having to pay for imports.

No one, it seems, bothered to double-check this conclusion against the records of actual farm output. Had they done so, they would have discovered a very revealing discrepancy. And with a little more investigation they might even have discovered the phenomenon of the multi-million-dollar sheep.

Here’s what was happening: in January, the wealthy owners of a chateau would receive a letter from the local tax inspector informing them that on such-and-such a date and time an inspection would be performed to determine the status of the property which in turn would form the basis for tax assessment.

In order to maximize efficiency, all the properties in the area would be inspected sequentially, the process usually taking about a couple of weeks for a modest-sized district. On the appointed date and at the specified time the tax inspector would arrive at the first property.

Naturally, this being Belgium, the inspector would be greeted by the owners with a large glass of the local beer or a generous verre de vin rouge. Once his thirst had been suitably assuaged the inspector would be shown evidence that the opulent chateau was in fact a working farm, doing its part to keep Belgium fed. Where once marble floors were trod by feet dancing a quadrille, now straw was everywhere and sheep were happily milling around. Outside, where once there were magnificent flower-beds, now were sheep pens in which more sheep were contentedly idling.

Without a doubt, the chateau was a national asset and as such would be taxed quite properly as a working farm and would not have to pay a penny of the surcharge being levied on properties dedicated to mere self-indulgence and leisure.

The assessment complete, the inspector would be invited to have lunch at the finest restaurant the local village could offer (gratis, of course) and would be encouraged to sample the many fine local beers and wines.

After a leisurely and very liquid lunch, the inspector would carefully make his way to the next property on his list, where he would find yet another converted chateau and yet more contented sheep milling about doing whatever it is sheep do when they’re not doing very much of anything.

This routine would be repeated until every large property in the district had been assessed and the inspector would return to his office, somewhat the worse for all the hospitality he’d received, to write up his report.

The local sheep farmer, meanwhile, would be celebrating his annual good fortune. Usually sheep are worth whatever price their wool and ultimately their meat will fetch on the market. But these sheep were nearly worth their weight in gold.

The reason, of course, is that the farmer simply rented his sheep to each chateau owner in turn. While the tax inspector was dining and drinking copiously, the farmer would herd his sheep into trucks, bail up the straw, and drive to the next chateau on the inspector’s list. In thirty minutes or less the straw would be strewn across the stone or marble floors, the pens would be erected outside, and the sheep would be put in place just in time for the tax inspector’s arrival.

In this way the owners of the properties each saved (in today’s money) hundreds of thousands of dollars per year and the farmer made considerably more than he’d have otherwise raised from the sale of sheep products. Everyone benefited, except of course the Belgian government.

Which was not entirely surprising, given that a great many people in the Belgian government were themselves owners of splendid chateaux, by which of course we mean splendid working farms.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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