Government and Greed
July 11, 2000
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
Greed used to mean an
unscrupulous appetite for other peoples 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
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
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.
At what point are taxes too high so high that they
create what amounts to involuntary servitude? Its a
sign of the times that even the U.S. Supreme Court, which specializes in
discovering new meanings in the Constitution, hasnt 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 isnt 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
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.
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