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Taxes and the Modern State

April 10, 2001

Now that it’s tax time again, we should ask a few questions that are all too rarely posed.

Why do people who clamor for “fairness” in the tax code always want to raise taxes? Why aren’t tax reductions “fair”? Is there a point beyond which taxes would be “unfair” even to billionaires? If so, what would that point be? Put otherwise: at what point does taxation become slavery?

These questions occur to me because a friend of mine recently pointed out an interesting fact: when the federal income tax was first imposed, John D. Rockefeller paid taxes at a lower rate than today’s burger-flipping, mop-wielding minimum-wage earners. Steady increases in income tax rates have put poor people in a higher tax bracket than the tycoons of yore. “And,” my friend remarks, “this doesn’t seem to bother the liberals who are always wailing about the poor.”

Doggone right. Liberals preen themselves on their “compassion,” but what they really want is compulsion — more state power over every aspect of our lives. For them, taxes can never be too high. At first they attack the rich, appealing to the envy of others; but in the end, they do to everyone what they had threatened to do to the rich. And if you complain about being deprived of your earnings, you are “greedy” and “selfish” — words liberals never apply to the state. Or to themselves.

Why should there be taxes at all? Why isn’t forcing people to give up their property, on pain of imprisonment, inherently “unfair”? And isn’t this unfairness compounded when the money is used, not only for purposes that may be plausibly called “the common good,” but for special interests and frivolous purposes that don’t benefit the taxpayer himself?

Most, if not all, services now supplied by the state could be paid for through voluntary arrangements. That would indeed be “fair.” Why? Because freedom is supremely fair.

“All right,” someone may say. “But there are certain essential functions that can’t be performed without the state, and in order to perform them the state must have the power to tax.”

Let’s stipulate that for the moment. But if it’s true, then the state should be strictly confined to those essential functions. It shouldn’t be able to keep increasing the number of inessential things it can force us to pay for.

A voluntary organization has the right to require its members to do anything it pleases, because they can always quit. But you can’t quit the state. The state by its nature is a compulsory organization with a captive membership. It ought to have the modesty not to impose undue burdens on its subjects. A decent state will be reluctant to tax its subjects beyond necessity.

Does this describe the state today? Hardly. The modern state takes advantage of its subjects’ inability to escape its power by continually increasing its powers and their burdens. There is no limit except the practical constraints of politics and a few residual constitutional inhibitions.

[Breaker quote: You can't 
quit the state, and the state won't quit.]Do our rulers ever conscientiously ask whether they already have too much power? Do they ever hesitate to claim more? Do they ever try to define the proper limits of power in principle? Do they ever worry that they may be exercising tyranny over us? Are they at all troubled by the disparity between the limited range of state power in earlier times and its limitless range today? Do they even recognize the possibility of an illegitimate state power?

Not that I know of. They take for granted what might be called the autonomous state — a boundless entity that decides what its own powers are, and even claims the sole authority to interpret the Constitution so as to aggrandize itself.

Though the autonomous state is still, as I say, slightly inhibited by certain features of the Constitution (those features which it has been so far unable to whittle away), it adds nothing to our constitutional protections. Its inherent tendency is to expand, at the expense of all traditional restraints.

Yet most Americans don’t recognize that the autonomous state is diametrically opposed to the principle of constitutional government. This in itself represents a great achievement of statist propaganda. As Orwell saw, the modern mind itself is a product of the modern state.

Joseph Sobran

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Reprinted with permission
Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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