A timely piece from Machan’s Archives

Taxes, Greed and Prudence


Tibor R. Machan


        Never mind the attempt at intimidation by some, like the 2007 Nobel Laureate Woodrow “Woody” Clark, II, Senior Fellow at the Milken Institute, claiming that if you work to reduce or let alone to abolish taxes, you are greedy.  You are not.  You simply have a common sense understanding that there is something basically amiss with a system that coerces you and millions of others to part with your resources for services that would appear to be either hardly needed or, where needed, capable of being funded without using coercive force.  Moreover, not only are you not guilty of the vice of greed.  You can take pride in your practice of the virtue of prudence.  Because what this moral virtue requires of us all is that we make sure we and those we are responsible for are well taken care of.


        So, for example, check ups at the doctor and regular workouts are a function of prudence, as is brushing your teeth regularly and driving the roads carefully.  (That famous financial firm featuring the rock of Gibraltar as its logo isn’t called Prudential by accident.)  We should all, especially if we have families and other intimates to care for, be prudent, which includes taking good care of our resources. So, then, not permitting the tax collector to raid these is clearly one instance of being prudent, not being greedy.  The more of your resources you can keep from the extortionists, the more praiseworthy you are!


        Of course there are the apologists for this reactionary public policy, one that really belongs in the age of feudalism when the population was taken to be beholden to the royal family and its goons. The justice of the U. S. Supreme Court, Oliver Wendel Holmes, Jr., is supposed to have said that taxes are the price we pay for civilization and since he was a smart and powerful American justice, many think what he said must clearly be a pearl of wisdom.  (Actually, the source of the statement is a bit obscure.  Holmes is said, by Justice Felix Frankfurter, to have "rebuked a secretary’s query of ‘Don’t you hate to pay taxes?’ with ‘No, young fellow, I like paying taxes, with them I buy civilization’.") In any case, the sentiment is way off.  It is not just a ruse but a paradoxical one at that.


        Civilization, if one can sum up its nature in just a few words, means relating to our fellow human beings peacefully, respectful of their dignity and sovereignty, never using them against their will.  This is what distinguished civilized folks from barbarians throughout human history.  But when we  focus on governments it becomes evident that these agencies have routinely managed to circumvent the principles of civilization simply because a minimal portion of their work is quite useful, the portion that America’s Founders so clearly pinpointed in the Declaration of Independence.  This is where governments are assigned the role of securing the rights of the citizenry, the sole purpose for which the institution exists. 


        So what Holmes is supposed to have said is quite wrong–taxation is a major subversion of the principles of civilization, principles which are supposed to guide us all toward dealing with one another peacefully, not through extortion.


        Ah, but you will not find this view widely discussed, let alone championed, among academics, even historians of ideas, let alone public officials, the majority of whom live off this extortionist device, just as the king and his minions used to with impunity, in most parts of the world and in America back before the Revolution demoted them all to mere citizen status!


        So, if you have come by your resources, your wealth, honestly, have no shame when you also work hard not to let the government rip you off.  Yes, of course, legal services–courts, the police, the military and such–need to be paid for but not by this means. Extortion is how organized criminals come by their "income."  It isn’t supposed to be the method of public finance of a genuinely free society.


        The fact that in the course of emerging from centuries and centuries of oppression via a great varieties of rulers–Caesars, Pharaohs, Czars, kings, and even democratic majorities that disregard individual rights–much of the world is still sticking to taxation as its way of funding its legal systems doesn’t make that right, any more than the fact that there was slavery and serfdom and still is in many places makes those right.  One task of civilized people with a concern for the quality of their system of government must be to discover and implement ways of funding legal systems in a bona fide civilized fashion, without coercion, that is to say, without taxation.

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