Laboring for the Lords

Who are you really working for?

In feudal days of yore, the social and economic system was fantastically complex in the details but pretty straightforward in principle: Everybody swore allegiance to somebody, taking on certain obligations, and receiving certain benefits in return.

The peasants were legally tied to the land, had to give their lord a portion of their crops, and had to work on the lord's lands a certain number of days per year.  In return, the lord was expected to provide a justice system and physical protection from outside invaders, though neither of those obligations were always honored particularly conscientiously.

The lord, in turn, was granted his domain from the king, and in return had to provide military forces and cash for the king's wars.

We speak of the nobility living on the backs of the peasantry, and this was quite literally true: other than occasional defense, the nobles provided few services of practical value but expected to live a life of grandeur and comfort while the serfs suffered grinding poverty.

This unjust system survived only as long as the lord and his knights held an effective monopoly on military power, enjoying castles, weapons, and knightly training.  As soon as "the Great Equalizer" become widespread, resentful commoners brought the lives of parasitic nobles to a sticky end.

The Threshold of Slavery?

Early America didn't tolerate feudal lords, but some of the traditions remained: many farmers would "work off the road tax" by maintaining county roads in lieu of paying cash property taxes.  Even back then, this system wasn't too effective.

We are far more sophisticated in our modern world and you'd think we'd never tolerate a government forcing you to do unpaid government work for, say, three months out of the year.  Yet a glance at your pay stub reveals that's exactly what you've been doing.

Add up all the taxes you pay - income tax, property tax, sales tax, and on and on - and the total is shocking.  The Tax Foundation calculated that, in 2010, most Americans worked for the government from January 1 through April 9 whether they wanted to or not.

Americans will pay more taxes in 2010 than they will spend on food, clothing and shelter combined.

Even worse, our government is running a massive deficit that isn't paid for by today's taxes but must be paid for someday either by higher taxes or by destroying the value of our currency.  Include the deficit, and "Tax Freedom Day" would be May 17.

Now, a certain amount of what we pay in taxes is for essential value received.  We all need the police and fire departments, the protection of the military, and the justice of the courts.  When Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. observed that "Taxes are what we pay for civilized society," he wasn't entirely mistaken.

Must civilized society cost so darn much, though?  Entrusted with the responsibility of the public's funds, our government leaders and public servants have an obligation to at least try to be efficient, yet the very thought of our government being efficient provokes gales of laughter.  Something's wrong here.

Our New Nobility

Back in the time of nobles and peasants, there were lords who took their feudal obligations seriously; they really did care about being fair and just to their serfs, protecting them from outside danger, and making investments to improve their lives where possible.

Then there were the 99% of the rest of the nobility, living high on the hog while the common folks starved.  Come the Revolution, a handful of French nobles were saved by their grateful and loving people; the rest who didn't manage to skedaddle got the chop.

Unfortunately, our new nobility, the public "servant," seems to mostly behave the same way.  Are there honest, hard-working, productive, useful government employees who do worthwhile jobs with thoroughness and efficiency?  Of course there are.  Unfortunately, their competent efforts are dwarfed by the overwhelming majority of self-interested sponges who quite naturally pursue their own personal profit and benefit, but in so doing, are bankrupting the productive side of the economy.

For what possible reason should Federal workers be earning twice what private companies pay?  In 2009, private employees earned an average total compensation of $61,051, while Federal bureaucrats received $41,791 in benefits alone.  With a stone-cold-frozen economy and wages likewise, it's not hard to foresee a day when America's bureaucrats will get benefits worth more than ordinary workers' entire pay.

Yet it is us who are paying for them, just as it was the hard work of the starving serfs which provided the lavish feasts in the baron's banqueting hall.  It was wrong then, and it's wrong now.

Fortunately, we have an option not available to the peasants of yore: we can vote out the politicians who overpay their public-sector-union allies, and put in new leaders like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who welcome a knock-down, drag-out battle with government leeches.

There's no need to send bureaucratic nobility in tumbrels to Madame Guillotine; sending them shamefaced to the unemployment line is quite sufficient.  We just need to start doing it, the sooner the better.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Economics.
Reader Comments
A question -- what percentage of our income does the state take now?

What percentage of the American colonists' income was King George taking when they decided to pick up their guns?

I'd be curious to compare.
September 6, 2010 11:06 AM
That's a good question, and I've not found an authoritative number. The general impression I get is that the colonies were actually fairly lightly taxed compared with England itself. The principle "No taxation without representation" really was the underlying point - it wasn't an unwillingness to pay taxes per se, but an unwillingness to pay taxes arbitrarily imposed by politicians with no accountability to American taxpayers, that was the problem. I suspect the Revolution could have been avoided by the simple expedient of giving the colonies seats in Parliament.
September 6, 2010 4:49 PM
I think you're right on both counts, Petrarch, although ultimately I think Britain's control over the colonies would have inevitably diminished to match roughly the "control" Britain currently has over Canada.

My gut tells me that we're taxed at roughly the same rate the colonists were, but it doesn't bother your average citizen because US citizens have it pretty good with what's left over. A smart government taxes the same way a smart criminal organization steals -- *just* below the threshold where people will bother doing something about it.
September 6, 2010 6:03 PM
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...