No Representation Without Taxation

As we celebrate the Declaration of Independence on this 4th of July, let's ponder over the document that launched our republic and (pardon the pun) revolutionized Western civilization.  After all, it is a remarkable work which changed the course of history.

Prior to Thomas Jefferson putting pen (did they have pens back then?) to paper in July 1776, the model for governmental authority since the dawn of time was this: God endowed kings with authority and rights, who in turn passed certain rights and authority on to their subjects.  Jefferson stood this model on its head and declared that God endowed each individual human with certain "inalienable" rights.  The primary function of the government was to protect these rights.  Authority was vested with the people, who in turn entrusted it to their leaders.  This authority, as Jefferson understood it, was not all-encompassing and limitless.  Rather, it was limited and temporary - revokable should the leaders fail in their duties.  When the men put in authority failed to protect the rights of the individual (or even worse, committed acts which were harmful to the individual) then those men needed to be removed from authority.  It was not only the right, Jefferson argued, but the sacred duty of the populace to remove these men from power - by force if necessary - and install new leadership.

This argument is simple, straightforward, and (unfortunately) poorly-understood by most Americans.  When I was a junior in high school, my US history teacher Mr. Kemper sent a few of us out to the mall for a class project.  He wanted us to see how well people knew the Declaration and how people would react to it today.  The petition form of the Declaration was very short and direct.  It started out with the phrase that (I thought) everyone would immediately recognize: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are endowed by their creator with certain, inalienable rights...."  He left in the part about the primary function of government being to protect the rights of the individual, and the part about the need for the people to take up arms against abusive government if the government refuses to correct itself.  We took this to the Metrocenter mall and asked random people to read it and sign it.  There were a few who looked it over and, seeing the opening phrase, smiled and signed it.  But they were far outnumber by the people who refused to sign it and quietly walked away, and by those who called us Communists and Nazis before storming off.  This was more than twenty years ago, but the lesson was so powerful that I will never forget it.

Consider the grievances that the colonies had with King George, and compare them to what other countries have endured under their leaders.  Mad as George was, he was no Pol Pot or Augusto Pinochet.  He didn't rule with the iron fist of Saddam Hussein and they weren't being conscripted en masse to fight in an unpopular, far off war like the pre-Bolshevik Russians.  There were no Stalin-like purges of colonists critical of the King and no mass graves being filled with political prisoners.  No, all told, the colonists weren't living under the boot of a mad dictator and weren't really being mistreated as badly as future societies would be.   Their rebellion was fueled by one thing more than any other: taxes.

John Marshall wrote that "The power to tax is the power to destroy."  The Founding Fathers understood this, and knew that their only protection against this power was to have a voice in the government.  But, as colonists, they did not have any say over acts of Parliament.  In fact, Parliament was doing everything in its power to ensure that the Americans didn't even have a voice in their own local government.  By passing the Intolerable Acts, the British government was trying to exert more control over the colonies who, in the wake of the Tea, Stamp and Sugar Acts (which raised taxes - it's always about taxes), became more and more vocal about their dissatisfaction with their "taxation without representation."  The Intolerable Acts backfired, of course, and pushed the colonies closer to rebellion.

So, if it is fair and good that we celebrate men who started a long and costly rebellion over being taxed when they had no say in the government, what can we conclude about the converse?  What are we to think about the tendency in the past decades to remove more and more people from the federal income tax rolls, while still allowing them to have a say over other people's taxes?  It has become commonplace for politicians (especially Presidential candidates) to promise "If you vote for me, I'll raise taxes on these other people and not on you!"  President Obama promised that taxes would not be raised on "95% of Americans" and that only "the rich" would be forced to pay more.  He went on to promise that millions of Americans would have to pay no taxes whatsoever, but would instead receive tax credits.  Forget what you may think about the rich and the poor and just stay focused on the sheer boldness of the promise he made: "Vote for me and I'll raise taxes on other people so that you won't have to pay any more taxes.  In fact, the government might give you money instead of the other way around."

When the Founding Fathers got done overthrowing the British and (after a false start with the Articles of Confederation) got together to draw up a constitution, they understood that people who were going to be taxed should have some say over those taxes.  That's why all tax bills must be raised in the House of Representatives first and not in the Senate, as when the Constitution was ratified, Senators were appointed and not elected.  Alexis de Tocqueville famously wrote "The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money" and that "A democratic government is the only one in which those who vote for a tax can escape the obligation to pay it."  Those two principles are becoming more and more obvious.  But how do we reverse it?  How does one lead a revolution against representation without taxation?

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This page contains a single entry by Louis Core published on July 4, 2009 11:17 PM.

The Brilliance of the Obama Administration....If It Only Knew was the previous entry in this blog.

When Did We Fail Her As Parents? I Blame Television is the next entry in this blog.

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