Perhaps it’s fate that I’m reading a book about the early radicals of the American Revolution, the “Sons of Liberty,” while the nation is now about to plunge over a “fiscal cliff.”
The tone of the times in 1765 wasn’t too far from the divided tone as we go into 2013: The public began to revolt against an abusive, overbearing government that sought to tax people in ways that were perceived to be unfair. Think today’s “Tea Party” on steroids.
There are differences, of course. A big part of the moral argument against the British tax mandates in the mid-1700s was the idea of “taxation without representation.” The colonies didn’t have representation in Parliament and thus no voice on the taxes they were being asked to pay.
Today, we do have a representative government and we get to vote for our leaders. But the question is, who do those government officials really represent? Certainly not taxpayers, or for that matter, the citizens at-large. At just about every level of government, spending is out of control.
At the federal level, we hear a lot of talk about “fairness” in taxes. The Obama Administration and the national Democratic Party have railed against what they call “the rich” and demand that they pay “their fair share.” And both parties say they don’t want to raise taxes on “the middle class.”
But what is a “fair share?” In 2009, the top five percent of income earners paid 58.6 percent of the national income taxes and the top 25 percent paid 87 percent of federal taxes. So just how much more should they pay? At the same time, the bottom 50 percent of wage earners paid only 2.2 percent of federal income taxes.
Maybe the middle class, which is the largest group demanding government entitlements, should pay more?
That debate has nothing to do with fixing the national debt — even if Congress taxed the nation’s top earners at 100 percent, it wouldn’t touch the federal debt. The “fiscal cliff” debate hasn’t been about fairness in taxation, it’s about politics: First, divide the nation politically by scapegoating the “rich” as a common enemy around which to build a political base for Democrats; and second, talk about taxes and “fairness” as a way to deflect attention to the real problem, which is overspending by government.
We see this issue very clearly at the national level, but it also exists at the state and local levels of government. Who pays the most taxes locally? Businesses and the high income wage earners. Commercial and industrial property owners pay far more in taxes than they consume in local government resources. In effect, businesses and those who own large homes or expensive property, subsidize other local taxpayers. Is that really “fair?”
Still, it’s spending at the local and state level that is the real problem, not taxes. The state has, for example, shifted the cost of education to local counties by cutting the amount it allocates to public schools. The state hasn’t cut the cost mandates very much, however, so local communities are left to pick up the tab through local property tax hikes and local boards of education get the blame.
At the same time, other local governments have been spending way too much money for years. That’s especially true in small towns where local city councils create expensive police departments far larger than they can afford. The result is higher local taxes for services that aren’t really needed and some towns going down a financial hole.
But unlike our ancestors who fought the British for representation, we have done all of this to ourselves. We have elected the leaders who now tax us from every direction.
But in some ways, is that really any different from what led to the American Revolution?
Today, the nation is divided into special interest groups who carry most of the political influence. Over time, those groups have created a dynamic where only certain groups have to pay taxes while other groups are exempt. When 50 percent of the people pay no federal income taxes, but they get to vote, isn’t that the moral equivalent of taxation without representation for the other half who do pay taxes?
What is different today, however, is the culture that exists in our country is dramatically changed from that which our ancestors had. The history of the settlement and growth of the U.S. was one of individualism, people fleeing Europe to seek freedom from religious and economic persecution. That culture was suspicious of government and the power of kings who gave and took away individual rights and liberties. From that background came the idea that some rights were “inalienable” and were not dependent on the whims of kings, or for that matter, any man. It was that idea which is found at the center of the American Revolution.
Yet today, there are many who believe otherwise, that government should be the dispenser of rights. That idea would be strange to many of our ancestors who believed just the opposite. They knew from firsthand experience that the more power accrued by government, the more that government will abuse citizens.
But many people simply don’t care any more. Too many have become wards of the state in one way or another, dependent on government for their material well-being. And look at how many people work for government and have gold-plated benefits and wages far beyond similar jobs in the private sector. To most of those people, more government is good.
Now with ObamaCare, we are massively extending government dependency even further into our lives. Everyone will soon be dependent on government to decide if they get medical care or not. Do you really trust some bureaucrat to decide if you need that operation or not?
And so we enter 2013 as a nation deeply divided. The political split we see in Washington is just the tip of what is happening, a reflection of a much deeper cultural divide in which a large number of citizens have decided to forgo liberty for the fake comfort and security of more government in their lives.
Our ancestors might recognize this. Only about one-third of citizens supported the American Revolution, the rest were Loyalists to Britain, or didn’t care either way.
I suspect that’s the case today: About one-third do care about how government is increasingly intruding into our daily lives; about a third want more government because they seek the illusion of “fairness;” and the final third are too wrapped up in our celebrity culture or too high on drugs to care.
Which makes you wonder: At what point in the future will the third who care about personal liberty follow in the revolutionary footsteps of our ancestors?
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of the Barrow Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.