Last Freedom Standing: The Freedom to be Taxed

Government trying to do everything.

Today being April 15, there is only one suitable subject for our consideration, and that is the one that kept half the country up late last night: taxes.

Let's get through the obvious first: everyone hates taxes; your taxes (and by that, I mean literally your taxes - but not necessarily everyone else's) are far too high; but, as Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "Taxes are the price we pay for civilization."  Much as we hate shelling out, we all do realize that there needs to be a government, and somebody has to pay for it.

Of course, the interesting thing about today is that the vast majority of us aren't shelling out.  For almost everyone except the self employed, April 15th is either meaningless (if you're on welfare) or a day for positive celebration, anticipating the large tax refund checks that will be arriving shortly.

The problem is that those checks, far from being a gift from above, represent your money that the government has confiscated by stealth all through the year - and just a small fraction of it at that.  The government is buying your favor with your own money.

From the point of view of government, a good tax system allows the maximum number of feathers to be plucked from the goose with the minimum amount of hissing.  Our government has become the absolute master of this art.

Suppose you decided not to pay your taxes in protest.  How, exactly, could you even begin?

Sales taxes are collected by the storekeeper; you can't decline to pay them or he won't give you your candy bar.  Income taxes are withheld by your employer; you never even see the money so you don't have the opportunity to refuse to pay.

If you own a house, in theory you could decline to pay the property tax - but most mortgages require the taxes to be included, in escrow, as part of your monthly payment to the bank.  The days of the Sheriff of Nottingham coming round to collect bags of gold which, if you dared, could be hidden and buried, are long over.

Which leaves us with other forms of protest.  Two centuries ago, our Founding Fathers participated in the symbolic protest of the Boston Tea Party, dumping crates of tea into the harbor rather than pay import duty on them.  Today, in remembrance of the point our founders were trying to make, large numbers of American citizens are celebrating "Taxed Enough Already" rallies all across the country; though, since these events are almost certain not to be covered on the news no matter how large they are, it'll be hard to say how successful they might be.

It's astonishing to realize that the spark which lit off the American Revolution was tax amounting to less than 10% of income, whereas we now (grudgingly) cough up somewhere around a third.  Why?

The answer is as simple as it is disturbing: The opinion of Americans regarding what government ought to be doing has changed.

In revolutionary times, the government was expected to take care of physical security and justice.  The government ran the army, of course, and the court system.  Customs officers collected import tariffs to fund the rest of the system, and in a few places local authorities (never the national one) operated public schools.

And that was pretty much it.  A township might have a "poor farm" where the indigent could take refuge, and major commercial cities might invest in infrastructure such as the Boston Post Road.  Certainly no citizen would ever expect to receive money from the government except for services rendered, goods sold, or possibly disability in military service; even retired Presidents did not receive a pension until 1959.

In the last century, this history of independence and self-sufficiency has totally changed.  Ordinary Americans now fully expect government cash in retirement (Social Security) or impoverishment (welfare), and just as costly, health care in both those situations (Medicare and Medicaid).

We expect the government to provide free education through high school and subsidized education thereafter.  The government, via Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, subsidizes home ownership; it builds roads, airports, canals, buildings, and anything else imaginable; and, of course, it still handles national defense and the courts.

The real problem is not so much that we are heavily taxed, though of course we are.  The problem is that we aren't taxed enough given all the things that we demand that government do for us, when we should be doing them for ourselves - as witness the staggering deficits of George W. Bush, and the unimaginably vaster ones of Obama.

This philosophy is reflected even in the words we use to describe the programs: What once were termed government "benefits", something nice we get, are now called "entitlements" - something that we deserve, and claim as if by natural right.  How dare anyone "take away" our Social Security?  We deserve it!

A recent Rasmussen poll comes as no surprise.  Only 53% of Americans believe that capitalism is better than socialism.  20% think the opposite, and the remainder aren't sure.

How could they be, when for eighty years, in every crisis, we have turned not to private enterprise for solutions, but to government?  Regardless of what our leaders said, they've acted like free markets and private efforts are a nice luxury in good times which we cannot afford in bad.

Is freedom a luxury?  Is economic liberty a "nice to have"?  Is personal responsibility one of those things that sounds good, but is best avoided when things go wrong?  Without doubt, that's exactly what our entire national political structure currently believes, practices, and with Obama, now preaches.

...As radical as I think people tried to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn't that radical. It didn't break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution - at least as it's been interpreted, and Warren Court interpreted it in the same way, that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties: [It] says what the states can't do to you, says what the federal government can't do to you, but it doesn't say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf. [emphasis added]

The question of taxes is, unfortunately, a red herring - a distraction from the real problem of government intervention.  For all that the Tea Parties of today will be ignored in the media, it wouldn't make any difference if every channel had nonstop coverage of them for a week as long as Americans still want government to do things on their behalf.

Barack Obama in his campaign made a clear promise: a promise of a more activist government involved in fixing everything that could Possibly Go Wrong.  The voters chose this vision, or at least large chunks of it, and we are now getting the government we deserve fair and square.

The other day, I had an interesting conversation with a young gentleman driving me across town.  We had discussed the poor economy, and he mentioned that with Mr. Obama's election, he was now optimistic that things would improve.  I asked one simple question: "Why?"

"Because Obama will fix everything!" replied he.

I asked him then if, in his entire life, he had ever had an experience anywhere in any way where the government had done something competently.  As any American would, he spat "No!" in disgust.

"Why, then, do you think that Obama running the banks, the car companies, and everything else is going to make things better?  Is there anything else that government has ever fixed?"

I left him deep in thought.  I pray that our brief chat will mark a turning point in his political life.

It's the question Americans need to be asking themselves today - not "Why is my tax bill so high" but "Why do I think government should be involved in anything at all beyond the barest basics, when I can't think of one single thing that government has done right in my whole lifetime?"

Until voters start asking that question, and digesting the answer, our taxes will continue to rise and our freedoms to die.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Economics.
Reader Comments
If you own a house, in theory you could decline to pay the property tax - but most mortgages require the taxes to be included, in escrow, as part of your monthly payment to the bank.

I've always found it funny people that "own" houses feel as if they actually OWN their house. No one OWNS anything, if someone was to stop paying the taxes on their property over several years they could have their property seized.

That same Government could also come through and claim your house via eminent domain, even if you did pay your taxes and the Government had a "just" cause to do so.

Anyway, cool article. I already filed for taxes earlier this year (Because I don't owe anything.. I'm still a poor college student :-) ).
April 15, 2009 8:24 AM
Funny how paying taxes with a black man in the White House is met with such concern.

We became a dictatorship under George W, yet that seems to be not such a big deal for you people.

Parting comment, Die.

April 15, 2009 1:12 PM
Hmm, I don't see any discussion of race in the article or other comments, Joseph, a little projection going on here? You might want to find a dictionary and look up "dictatorship", since you don't appear to understand what the word means.

And five minutes Googling will find a whole host of complaints about taxes while Bush was president. Scragged didn't even endorse McCain in 2008.

April 15, 2009 2:15 PM
"It's astonishing to think that the American Revolution was fought over a tax bit of less than 10% of income..."

Petrarch, I think you might want to bone up a bit on your American History. There were sooooo many more reasons that the Revolution was fought. I agree with your sentiment, but you really need to be careful with your words when your words are your job. It's a thin line between poetic license and just plain wrong. Please don't write any more on this until you've read- and come to understand- the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Paines' "Common Sense", at the very least.
Other than that one iencie glitch, I think this is a great article. Much respect to you for advocating independence and personal responsibility.
April 15, 2009 2:54 PM
B. Mull, you are of course absolutely right that the Revolution was fought over many more issues than just tax. I think it's fair to say that taxes were, however, the spark that lit the fuse. The sentence has been modified to clear up this point.
April 15, 2009 3:03 PM
Came back to this today, and I realize that the tone of my last comment is really very prickish. Sorry about that. I have yet to master the art of inflection in cold text. Thank you Petrarch for such a gracious response.
April 16, 2009 8:59 AM
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