“A right to tax, without limit or control, is essentially a power to destroy.”
– Chief Justice John Marshall, McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. 316, 391 (1819)
Matt Stoller has an ode to the joys of paying taxes at MyDD that seems to accurately describe how the left feels about taxes these days. To Stoller, taxes are as American as Mom, apple pie, and the flag:
Our tax code is the DNA of our nation’s moral compass. I am proud to pay taxes because I take pride in America, and paying some tiny burden to keep our society running is an extremely small price to pay for being able to call myself an American citizen. The old expression ‘you get what you pay for’ is apt for all sorts of situations. People tend to express what they value in how much they are willing to pay for it. I am willing and feel privileged for the right to pay for my country. The right-wing is embittered to do so, if they do so at all. And that, more than anything, says something about how much they value this experiment called America.
Of course, it’s somewhat ironic to be saying that taxation is the “DNA of our nation’s moral compass.” For one, it’s one of the ugliest mixed metaphors I’ve ever read. Secondly, America was founded on a rejection of confiscatory taxation. The Founders of this country recognized that the power of the state and the rights of the individual are at odds — they certainly didn’t have the view that what makes America great was our tax code — in fact, when this nation was founded there was no such thing as an income tax. It’s rather difficult to argue that the 16th Amendment, which wasn’t passed until well after the founding of this nation, is responsible for America’s greatness.
That’s where the left gets it utterly wrong. The Founders had a very jaundiced view of government — it’s why we have a Constitution of enumerated powers, a Bill of Rights, and a tradition of limiting the power of the state. Such features were designed expressly to maximize the ability of the individual to succeed in life. In fact, Jefferson’s first drafts of the Declaration of Independence didn’t talk about the “pursuit of happiness” but borrowed directly from Locke and spoke of “life, liberty, and property.” The idea that our national greatness derives from our government rather than from the people would be deeply alien to the Founders. It goes against our real national DNA — which can be read in the texts of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and our other founding documents.
The greatness of our country comes not from the power of the state — if that’s the measure of greatness than the US should be at the bottom of the heap and nations like North Korea should be ruling the world. Yet we have one of the the oldest continually-running democracies on the globe. Our economic power is unmatched, and when there’s a genocide in Europe it’s our military that does most of the heavy lifting. The reality is that this nation is, by objective standards, the greatest on the planet, and that isn’t because we have an intrusive and bothersome state, but because for the most part our government stays out of the way.
Our Founding Fathers weren’t happy to turn over their fortunes to the state because they knew that controlling the economic destiny of individuals is no less onerous than trying to control our political destinies. The idea that we should happily pay taxes — no matter how onerous they are — isn’t an affirmation of American citizenship, but a rejection of what the Founders made clear when they broke free of England. The deliberately bequeathed to us a system of government of separated powers, federalism, and individual rights. The modern left does not seem to understand why they did that, and seems to reject that essential vision.
Our abiding respect for the rights of the individual is what makes America great. Go to the DMV or the welfare office and ask yourself, “is this what makes this country what it is?” Then go visit a church, a synagogue, a charity, or any of the other ad hoc community associations that have little if anything to do with the state but make up the best part of America. It is those small, personal, and responsible organizations that provide much of America’s greatness. At the end of the day, putting one’s faith in the large, the impersonal, and the bureaucratic is a fool’s errand. Federal government, by its very nature, will always be large, inefficient, and impersonal. That’s why the Founders limited its scope to only those powers enumerated in the Constitution. We can make government as small, as efficient, and as personal as possible, but it will never be able to replace the elements of civil society that make democracy work. Those who have tried have lost both civil society and democracy.
If one honestly believes that taxes are the reason that America is great, then you haven’t listened to what the Founders have said. Governments do not make nations great, but are only reflections of the people. When the size and scope of government serves to stifle the power of the individual to shape their lives, then democracy withers and dies. The left may have the best intentions, they may wrap themselves in the mantle of patriotism, but ultimately their policies and their voracious appetite for government revenue is a betrayal of the values that this country was founded upon.