Taxes and the Modern State
April 10, 2001
that its 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
arent 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
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 todays 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 doesnt 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
isnt forcing people to give up their property, on pain of
imprisonment, inherently unfair? And isnt 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 dont benefit the taxpayer
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 cant be
performed without the state, and in order to perform them the state must
have the power to tax.
Lets stipulate that for the
moment. But if its true, then the state should be strictly confined
to those essential functions. It shouldnt 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 cant 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.
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 dont
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.
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