Taxation and the elusive nature of elegantly simple freedom

Nobody is considering what’s actually at stake in the current tax-policy debate. It looks like a lot of class struggle and concern about economic vitality, but it actually reflects how we see the sovereignty of the individual human being.

The term “tax policy” elicits, broadly speaking, one of three types of reactions:

1.) A glazing over of the eyes, a conjuring of visions of tables and schedules, percentages, brackets and deadlines.

2.) Rhetoric indicating a prediliction for talking in terms of the comparative advantage and disadvantage of particular groups.

3.) A general wariness about government coming after the money of citizens regardless of how they’re classified.

It should be noted that the first reaction may coincide with either of the latter two. Rare indeed is the person, regardless of ideology, who relishes an engagement with mind-numbing forms, arcane terminology and the the almost assuredly erroneous compiliation of personal data.

People who have reaction number three have the biggest challenge in persuading others of their position. Our society has come to venerate “fairness” and to take for granted that government ought to be an agent of beneficence. There is a widespread sense that “keeping mine” automatically entails someone else going without.

There’s also the matter of tone, which counts for nearly everything in this age of branding. It didn’t take but a few years for the term “tea party” to become a magnet for derision. Organizations focused on advocating minimal taxation do well to avoid terms like “patriot” or even “freedom” in their names to avoid being dismissed as boneheaded by at least a plurality of the public.

In addition, the typical modern American has limited patience for discussions about James Madison’s vision of government’s scope and function. It’s been so long, as in over a century, since that vision informed the daily work of government that, when one mentions it, a fusillade of questions about roads and bridges all too often ensues. Their conflation with school lunches, prescription drugs and subsidized solar panels is a fait accompli.

There’s no doubt that a number of people who have reaction number three, particularly if they have a relative abundance of assets, spend a great deal of time on the phone with their accountants looking into ways to work the system and keep their liability to a minimum. The accountants duly unearth obscure provisions in the code to accomplish that. Thus do category-three types contribute to the ever-increasing complexity of the whole thing.

This is why an argument for a low-taxation bias is so daunting. Various constituencies insist that various programs are fundamental functions of government, even as they proliferate and cost ever-more money.

What would be required for the massive reversal of mindset among the American public by which “redistribution” became a thing of revulsion?

It’s a pressing question, because the case against redistribution is moral.

Government is the entity in our society with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Pulling off to the side of the road when a patrol car behind you flashes its lights is not optional. Neither is filing a 1040 form. We’re not talking about a contractual arrangement between private entities. You didn’t agree to your relationship with government. You were born into it. Government pressing its case when you don’t comply with its edicts starts out gradually, but the barrel of a gun is implicit at every step.

The next point to be made, and it’s sad that it’s not obvious enough to go without mentioning, is that your money is yours. It’s property, as much as your house, car, clothing or collection of original-pressing Beatle LPs.

Granted, in order to erect a bulwark against chaos, we need enough government to maintain an armed force, a treasury, a diplomatic function, courts and a legislature. Okay, some roads and bridges, too.

Whether anything else, such as “affordable” health care, or education, or enthusiasm for particular forms of energy, are achieved by society depends, or ought to, on the sum total of individual choices made in those realms — in other words, on the shape of our culture.

The points made above — that government can use force, that your money is yours, and that the sum total of society’s needs and wants depends on millions of micro-level decisions — have a well-duh quality to them. Or should.

It is morally wrong for government to use its power to take Citizen A’s money to pay for the particular wants or even needs of Citizen B.

What’s your reaction to that assertion? Is it “well, of course,” or is it closer to an explosion of outrage?

Congress’s inability to cling to that principle as its lodestar, to winnow out the clamorings of this and that interest group, and let people keep all their money save for what is specified in Mr. Madison’s thunderous document, does not speak well of our nation’s spiritual health. A person’s freedom is his or her second most precious gift, after his or her life.

Freedom is always elegantly simple, compared to any attempt to mitigate it. Once some exception is carved out of a freedom-based policy orientation, there’s no end to it.

Freedom is scary, though. Once you do away with all the intricate curbs on it, you have to think about things like your own best interest and your role in shaping your destiny.

We keep hoping that the filling out of forms and crafting of convoluted legislation will consume enough of our time that our distraction from that basic fact will be complete.

It’s how human beings are reduced to cattle.

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