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Government and Greed

July 11, 2000

The phrase stopped me in my tracks: “Government Greed.” I thought I was the only one who ever used it, and suddenly there it was, the title of a Wall Street Journal editorial. Should I congratulate the paper for a conceptual breakthrough, or sue for copyright violation?

Greed used to mean an unscrupulous appetite for other people’s money, typified by the highwayman and the embezzler. In the age of limitless government it has come to mean the simple desire to keep your own money. Politicians proposing tax cuts are “pandering to greed and selfishness.”

But nobody accuses the government of greed, no matter how heavily it taxes us. Government is assumed to be entitled to take as much of the citizens’ wealth as it desires.

By the same token, nobody accuses public employees and welfare recipients of greed for wanting to live on money taken by force (under threat of fines and imprisonment) from people who have to earn a living in the voluntary economy.

Tax Freedom Day is the day when the taxpayer stops working for the government and starts working for himself. In effect, the taxpayer now works for the government until early June. Nearly half our earnings go to the government; by some calculations, the real amount is much more than half, when you take into account such factors as hidden taxes on the products we buy with our remaining money.

Observing Tax Freedom Day is a great idea, but we need a historical standard of comparison. When did Tax Freedom Day fall in 1775? How much of that year did the American taxpayer work for the allegedly tyrannical King George III?

In those days there was no income tax, and Americans were enraged when the king raised excise taxes on certain goods by a few pennies. So Tax Freedom Day must have fallen pretty early — around mid January, maybe.

[Breaker quote: How 
taxes create involuntary servitude]At what point are taxes too high — so high that they create what amounts to “involuntary servitude”? It’s a sign of the times that even the U.S. Supreme Court, which specializes in discovering new meanings in the Constitution, hasn’t found “penumbras” and “emanations” in the Thirteenth Amendment, applying it in ways its authors never imagined. If pornography falls under “the freedom of speech [and] of the press,” if the Fifth Amendment somehow requires that criminal suspects be advised of their rights, if abortion is protected by a penumbral “privacy” (which isn’t even mentioned in the Constitution), then why should “involuntary servitude” be construed so narrowly as to mean only chattel slavery, and not servitude to the state?

After all, the Thirteenth Amendment makes no distinction between servitude to the state and servitude to a private master. It should be construed to forbid excessive taxes and military conscription as well as chattel slavery. You can be a slave without wearing shackles and being whipped.

But alas, we have no commonly accepted criteria of proper and improper uses of the taxing power. How much is too much? This question is hard to answer when there are no limits on the functions of the state. Government now claims authority over everything from preschool education to outer space, over what we eat and how much water we have in our toilets. Good old King George left such decisions to his subjects, even though he never had to worry about being reelected.

If government were confined to a few specific functions, such as protecting us from crime and foreign invasion, then we could say that we were being illegally taxed whenever it spent money for unauthorized functions. Nobody should be forced to pay a penny for educational and cultural activities, for example.

In fact, nobody should be forced to pay for anything that benefits other people but not himself. This is axiomatic. Being compelled to support other people is surely “involuntary servitude.” If taxation can be justified at all, it must be for the common good, not for the advantage of some at the expense of others.

Otherwise, government becomes an instrument of depredation and extortion — as indeed it now is. People like me can use it to rob people like you, and vice versa. Modern democracy serves organized greed.

Joseph Sobran

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