by Joe Sobran

(Reprinted from SOBRAN'S; December 2003; pages 3-5) 

     I've told this story before, but I'll tell it again. 

     In the summer of 1965, when I'd just finished my 
freshman year in college, I was reading a little book 
called THE LAW -- a long pamphlet, really -- by the 
nineteenth-century French legislator Frederic Bastiat, 
when I was riveted by a single sentence: "Look at the 
law, and see if it does for one man at the expense of 
another what it would be a crime for the one to do to the 
other himself." 

     In Bastiat's view, government, beyond the strictest 
limits of justice, became "organized plunder," a device 
by which "everyone seeks to enrich himself at the expense 
of everyone else." In other words, government itself 
tends to become the very evil it is supposed to prevent: 
crime. But it confuses people because it enacts criminal 
acts under the forms of law. 

     The simple insight rocked me. It upset my faith in 
my country and its basic justice. If Bastiat was right, 
the United States was already profoundly corrupt. It took 
me years to come to terms with this idea. Today it seems 
to me almost self-evident. I marvel that anyone with 
common sense thinks otherwise. 

     This means, for openers, that taxation is a gigantic 
system of fraud, robbery, and extortion. Most taxpayers 
receive nothing to justify the amounts they are forced to 
pay. Yet it's the taxpayer, not the ruler, who is treated 
as a criminal suspect and required to "confess" his 
earnings and holdings. The ruler isn't penalized for 
anything he does to the taxpayer. 

     This fact makes me wildly indignant, and I'm 
frustrated and baffled that so few Americans share my 
feelings. We are being robbed and cheated on an 
astonishing scale. 

     Once, during a radio interview (I've been known to 
repeat this story too), I was asked, "Why don't you ever 
criticize big business the way you always criticize big 
government?" I answered, "I'm not forced to do business 
with General Motors. If I do so voluntarily, I get a car 
for my money. But I am forced to do business with the 
government. Every year I'm forced to pay it roughly the 
price of a new car. And I've never seen that car. Someone 
else gets it." 

     Bastiat, a devout Catholic, reasoned about the state 
from a natural law philosophy. He concluded that the 
state violates the most basic principles of natural 
justice. Once you start thinking that way, you can hardly 
avoid thinking of politics as a largely criminal 

     At some level, most people know this 
intuitively. I think this accounts for the huge 
popular appeal of THE GODFATHER. We are all taught 
that the government is there to protect us from 
criminals. THE GODFATHER audaciously reverses our 
civics lessons: it shows us a benign master criminal who 
will protect us from the corrupt government. This is 
another sentimental myth, of course -- unlike real 
mafiosi, Don Corleone never extorts "taxes" from 
shopkeepers in the form of protection money -- but it has 
enough truth to seize our imaginations. 

     But the state's myth still prevails, and we submit. 
Most people see nothing questionable about state 
taxation, and politicians complacently assume their right 
to take our wealth. 

     Some Oklahoma politicians, for example, are 
currently in a tax-boosting mood. They want to raise 
taxes of all sorts -- income taxes, sales taxes, property 
taxes, excise taxes, you name it. 

     According to the National Taxpayers Union, the 
average Oklahoman *already* pays more in taxes -- 
Federal, state, and local -- than for food, shelter, 
clothing, and transportation *combined.* This amounts to 
26.5 per cent of per capita income. 

     How much is enough? What is the limit? At what 
point, short of taking 100 per cent of our earnings, do 
our rulers feel they are taking too much from us? 

     The obvious answer is that they recognize no limit. 
The subject never comes up. They view the taxpayer as an 
inexhaustible resource. 

     And why shouldn't they? The sad fact is that the 
American taxpayer is a remarkably passive creature. He 
merely grumbles at conditions far more oppressive than 
the tyranny that drove his ancestors to rebel against 
British rule in 1776. 

     One of the chief complaints of the American colonist 
was that he was taxed without his consent. Yet by today's 
standards, his taxes were amazingly low. Precise figures 
are hard to come by, but in 1764, for example, the 
average American was taxed by the Crown at the rate of 
sixpence per year. That is not a misprint. Six pennies 
per year. One penny every two months. Even adjusting for 
inflation, that is a pretty light tax burden. Today's 
children pay more than that in sales taxes. 

     And the British were cautious about raising taxes. 
Even a slight tax increase, as on a commodity like tea, 
could bring the colonies to a boil. 

     The Americans knew that a principle was at stake. 
Unlimited taxation could mean slavery. That is why they 
tried, at every turn, to nip it in the bud. 

     Under slogans like "No taxation without 
representation," Americans fought for independence and 
established their own governments. They thought 
self-government was their bulwark against tyranny and 

     But the problem turned out to be more complex. Even 
elected officials found it easy to abuse the taxing 
power, and self-government could be as predatory as 
foreign rule. Senator John C. Calhoun remarked that the 
most surprising thing experience in government had taught 
him was that it was easier to raise taxes than to cut 

     The Lincoln administration imposed the first Federal 
income tax to meet the costs of the Civil War. But again, 
by our standards the rates were amazingly low: the basic 
rate was 3 per cent, with a top rate of 5 per cent. Even 
so, after the war the U.S. Supreme Court soon ruled that 
a Federal levy on incomes was unconstitutional. 

     In 1913 the Federal Government surmounted this 
obstacle by winning a constitutional amendment 
authorizing taxes on incomes. No upper limit was set, but 
most Americans were unaffected. "Incomes" were narrowly 
defined; an unmarried taxpayer had to make about $50,000 
(in today's money) to pay the tax at all; and the top 
rate, a mere 7 per cent, reached only the very rich. It 
wasn't until after World War II that most Americans paid 
income taxes, but then the rates rose to their current 
punishing levels. And in recent decades most states have 
imposed income taxes too. Other taxes have also increased 
at dizzying rates. 

     At nearly every step, the government has had its 
way. Taxpayers have mounted only sporadic resistance, in 
what are often called "tax revolts." The phrase is 
significant. If our rulers are really our "servants," as 
self-government implies, why are the wishes of the ruled 
considered "revolts"? Can we "revolt" against our own 
servants? Or have they really become our masters? 

     The question answers itself. We might also ask, At 
what point does taxation become confiscation, theft, and 
even involuntary servitude? Our rulers -- we may as well 
say our masters -- never address this point. The Ruler of 
the universe asks only 10 per cent of our wealth. Our 
earthly rulers won't settle for such a modest share. They 
consider us "greedy" for wanting to keep more of our own 
money; they consider themselves "compassionate" for 
wanting to take more of it -- 20 per cent, 40 per cent, 
why not 80 per cent? 

     If the politicians had any respect for our rights, 
our property, our liberty, even our dignity, they would 
impose taxes only reluctantly, and they would acknowledge 
some just limit. They would act as if the money they take 
and spend is *our* money, to be used for the common good 
of all, and not for buying the votes of special interests 
and government dependents. In short, they would recognize 
that taxation is a *moral* issue, not a mere political 
convenience to be exercised arbitrarily and 

     I know of only one history of taxation, Charles 
satisfactory book; the writing is uneven, some of its 
judgments are open to question, and the subject is far 
too vast to cover in 530 pages. But it's about the only 
book dealing with the topic for the general reader, and 
it's full of fascinating information and anecdotes, 
backed by a basic wisdom. 

     Adams isn't categorically against taxation. He 
thinks there are "good" taxes as well as bad ones, and he 
argues, for instance, that the Roman Empire fell because 
it wasn't collecting taxes efficiently. He blames tax 
evasion for its demise, but blames its policies for 
fostering evasion. 

     Nevertheless, his narrative makes it hard to deny 
that "organized plunder" has been the very lifeblood of 
most states throughout history. In most times and places 
taxation, like slavery, was simply taken for granted as 
an inescapable fact of life; now and then there have been 
tax revolts, just as there have been slave revolts; and 
at times, especially since the Christian era, taxation 
has been recognized as presenting serious moral problems. 

     Aside from the Roman Empire, Adams thinks states 
have usually destroyed themselves through overtaxation. 
Greed is almost the defining mark, not of the capitalist, 
but of the state. Ingenious rulers have found a thousand 
ways, from slavery to debasing money to tariffs to 
exacting tribute, of appropriating others' wealth. At the 
same time, they fail to foresee how their own oppression 
will breed tax resistance. 

     Adams finds abundant records for this. In fact, many 
important archeological discoveries have been of tax 
inventories. The fabled Rosetta stone is essentially a 
tax record. "A large percentage of all ancient documents 
are tax records of one kind or another," he writes. "The 
day may come when historians will recognize that tax 
records tell the real story behind civilized life.... 
They are basic clues to the way a society behaves." After 
reading his swift review of history, you can hardly doubt 

     Taxation has always been big business, the biggest 
business of government. Hebrew complaints about the 
"oppression" of the Egyptian pharaohs seem to have been 
chiefly about the taxes imposed on them, which often 
amounted to, and were hard to separate from, slavery. 
(The Egyptians were cruel taxers, even sending scribes 
into every home to make sure people weren't preparing 
their food with untaxed cooking oil!) Sometimes we hear 
of taxation so casually that we hardly notice it, as in 
the Gospel accounts of Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem 
to submit to a great Roman tax census. 

     As Adams sees it, history is largely the story of 
men's constant efforts to get the wealth produced by 
other men, with politics and the state as the main means 
of acquisition. It's amazing that this ever-present 
dimension has been so slighted in most history books. Men 
have fought for power for many reasons, but the strongest 
has always been their own enrichment. It's hardly too 
much to say that the story of taxation is the story of 

     Adams sees Old Testament history as the constant 
struggle of the weak Jews against powerful predatory 
neighbors, Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Assyrian, 
Greek, and Roman. Losing a war, or avoiding one, meant 
paying tribute. (We tend to read words like "tribute" 
without grasping their concrete meaning.) 

     In the often deadly game of politics, tax exemptions 
and immunities as well as taxes were key weapons. 
Exemptions were irresistible privileges and definers of 
social class; Islam owed much of its original appeal to 
its offer of tax immunity to converts. This sufficed to 
lure the great majority of Christians and Jews in the 
Middle East, still heavily taxed by the dying Roman 
Empire, to the Muslim faith. But in time, Muslim rulers, 
having run out of taxable infidels, became eager taxers 
of their own people, and Islam lost its zeal even in its 
own domains. "Islam ceased to spread when converts were 
not offered a tax break." Conversion had become a tax 
"loophole" that worked only too well. 

     In the Middle Ages, struggles between Church and 
state were usually over taxes and the authority to tax. 
Stern moral limitations inhibited taxation, especially 
new and "unheard of" taxes ("exactio inaudita"). Rulers 
who raised taxes were widely regarded as wicked tyrants 
who "incurred sin and would be punished by God." But 
churchmen sometimes had greater taxing powers than 
secular rulers. 

     Like Rome, argues Adams, the mighty Spanish Empire 
finally broke down because it taxed too many too much and 
was unable to enforce its demands on a resentful 
population. But one of his most original chapters says 
that Aztec Mexico fell to the tiny forces of Cortes 
because of its own short-sighted greed in taxing its 

     Adams likewise sees taxation, not chattel slavery, 
as the issue that precipitated the American War Between 
the States. His sharp reading of Lincoln's first 
inaugural address confirms this. (He has developed the 
argument further in another book.) 

     Only one country, as Adams tells it, has gotten it 
right: Switzerland. The Swiss have kept their government 
under control pretty well, in great part because they 
have had the wisdom to keep the taxing power and the 
spending power under separate agencies. He says this 
practice also preserved English liberty for a long time, 
but the vaunted American constitutional separation of 
powers overlooked this crucial distinction. The U.S. 
Congress taxes *and* spends. So we lack checks and 
balances where we most need them. Moreover, the Swiss 
federal government can't raise taxes without a popular 
majority, which is usually denied. The Swiss taxpayer, 
unlike the American, has learned to defend himself. 

     According to Adams, America's downfall may come 
gradually through its failure to control and limit the 
taxing power. A nominally "federal" system is in vain 
when the spending and taxing powers are combined and 
centralized. It's at least a provocative idea; but if his 
book teaches anything, it's that Swiss wisdom isn't 

     A version of this piece was presented as a 
     speech to the Oklahoma Council of Public 
     Affairs ( in September 2003.


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