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The Rise of Tax Slavery

March 5, 2002

Tax time approaches, and Americans are as always paying H & R Block billions to help them save some of their wealth from their ravenous government. Pitiful, in a way: it underlines the grim but unacknowledged fact that the government is their enemy and they have to hire protection from it.

But don’t we enjoy “self-government”? Well, if we have it, I’d hardly say we enjoy it. True, we aren’t being taxed by the monarch of Great Britain, but our American-born rulers claim far more of our wealth than the British monarchs ever did.

The first income tax was imposed during the Civil War under President Abraham Lincoln — you know, the Great Emancipator. He is known for abolishing chattel slavery in seceding states; he is less well-known for introducing tax slavery in all the states. That’s one reason why the libertarian Lysander Spooner opposed both sides in the war: he said the South was fighting for chattel slavery, while the North was fighting for political slavery. Political slavery won.

The government was just getting its foot in the door. The top tax rate at first was 5 per cent. And that was only on relatively high incomes.

The U.S. Supreme Court, which in those days paid some attention to the Constitution, struck down the income tax several times. So, in the days of Woodrow Wilson, the Sixteenth Amendment was adopted, giving Congress the power to impose an income tax.

[Breaker quote: Can the 
Servile State be defeated?]Again, the first tax rates were low by today’s standards. A bachelor had to make about $50,000 a year in today’s money before he paid a 1 per cent tax; the top rate was 7 per cent, and only the very rich paid it.

But within a few years the country was at war — “the war to end all wars,” you’ll recall — and the tax rates were raised very high. Over time, the tax code became enormously complex, while the debasement of money drove ordinary people into tax brackets originally aimed at the rich. The government, needless to say, was impenitent and unapologetic about what looked very much like a bait-and-switch operation.

Along the way, the Federal Government greatly expanded its own powers, no longer bothering to amend the Constitution. The welfare state, though flagrantly unconstitutional, created broad political support for usurped powers. Franklin Roosevelt, a president of multifaceted treachery, consciously adopted the demagogic strategy of buying votes by soaking the rich.

Federal programs, all unconstitutional, have continued to multiply and expand. We now live in what Hilaire Belloc dubbed “the Servile State,” in which one part of the population is forced to support the other. Yet the average American is unaware of the total transformation and repudiation of the original American Republic. To the extent he knows of it at all, he has been taught to think of it as “progress.” He doesn’t realize that most of the taxes he pays are spent for purposes unauthorized by the Constitution.

Today liberals howl in protest when President Bush proposes to cut the top tax rate to 33 per cent! One might ask whether there is any moral limit to what the government can take from us; but the point is that, under the Sixteenth Amendment, there is no constitutional limit.

That amendment, the welfare state, and shifty “interpretation” of Congress’s power to regulate commerce have combined to enable the Federal Government to impose a socialist or fascist system while feebly pretending to honor the Constitution. It illustrates how tyranny may creep in under the outward forms of traditional law.

Will Americans ever awaken to what has happened to their country? Some vigilant souls have seen it all along. Many were aware of it long before I was. No doubt more are learning every day.

It may seem doubtful that the truth will penetrate enough people to reverse the trend. Passivity, ignorance, cowardice, venality, and sheer discouragement will always keep the majority acquiescent. The government’s greatest strength is the enormous numbers who depend for their income on its abuse of the taxing power. They sense that a return to constitutional government would be a disaster for them.

But a vigorous and intelligent minority, if it refuses to surrender, can do wonders. The good news is that such a minority already exists, and it is growing.

Joseph Sobran

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