Americans must work almost a third of the year just to carry the tax burden laid upon them by governments at the federal, state, and local levels.
Tax Freedom Day is celebrated this year on April 23, the date on which that obligation is fulfilled.
Fiscal year 2016, which ended back in September, was a banner year for the U.S. taxman: the federal government alone helped itself to a record revenue of nearly 3.3 trillion dollars, a vast sum still insufficient (by almost 600 billion dollars) to keep pace with the national government’s profligate spending.
Despite these staggering figures and the government’s record of fiscal irresponsibility, the payment of their taxes inspires in many Americans, particularly progressives, a quasi-religious sense of duty. If government is society’s great force for good, then to resist taxes, even if only rhetorically, is selfish and antisocial.
The U.S. government is, in this narrative, a humble almsgiver and service provider, impelled by a desire to do good, the embodiment of “the things we choose to do together.”
History, of course, scoffs at this naive idea, for governments are unique among human institutions in that participation in their activities is not predicated on choice of any kind. Should you disapprove of the government and its actions, you are not allowed, as a kind of conscientious objector, to simply opt out.
Government is a compulsory monopoly, possessed of the power to bind us to its dictates and to make all kinds of special demands of us, our time, and the resources at our disposal.
Yet if it were so simple, if government were just a membership organization or charity, sustained by the voluntary contributions of willing participants, then compulsion would be entirely unnecessary. And compulsion is, using anyone’s terms, among the few categorical features of government as we know it.
The famous sociologist Max Weber provided the classic formulation of this idea, widely accepted in political philosophy as the definition of the modern state: “A state is defined by the specific means peculiar to it, the use of physical force. The state is a human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”
We might reasonably expect a considered explanation for power of such an extraordinary kind, but rarely is one forthcoming. Instead, even to raise the question at all seems to brand one as a kind of eccentric, consumed by an impertinent, antisocial curiosity.
The most interesting and important questions are thus simply assumed out of the conversation—at least the popular one. Philosophers, on the other hand, have examined and interrogated existing explanations for the state’s strange combination of prerogatives and found them somewhat wanting.
Few political philosophers, for instance, any longer dare to ground the legitimacy or authority of government in the kind of consent theory found in the traditional social contract works.
It is, in any case, clear that the first governments were nowise instituted in order to provide the foundation for social cooperation toward the common good. No, they were instead born of one group’s primitive desire to plunder and control another, to claim the spoils of victory and assert dominion.
Taxation is a vestige of this, the cruel, barbaric history of government, the dark truth of which has been obscured by the mists of time. Taxation is not a symbol of civilization, social togetherness, or enlightened cooperation.
The first taxes were paid from a posture of abject submission and humiliation, demanded by the conquering lord. The very essence of the taxation act is the deep inequality of the two parties, the sovereign and the subdued.
The predatory character of the exchange would not have been lost on the first victims of taxation, as it was an immediate result of their military subjugation. If they wanted to live, they paid. They could have harbored none of today’s delusions that this systemization of simple brigandage was socially constructive, altruistic, or in service to some higher good.
So what changed?
The argument is that the revolution of democracy fundamentally changed the character of government, absolving it from the crimes of its admittedly checkered history and setting it on a new and just path.
Today, because we are allowed to vote for representatives, government is no longer the tool of a small, predatory ruling class, but a benevolent instrument for the common good. This story no doubt carries a certain appeal. All we had to do was make the state democratic — answerable to the people — and the previously insolvable problem of political authority was overcome.
Perhaps these inquiries into matters so historically remote are of no practical consequence; we are, after all, stuck with history and the political institutions we have inherited from it.
Still, these questions matter because their uncomfortable answers suggest that we should endeavor at least to make our political leaders (perhaps more accurately our captors) more accountable to us. And this requires that American government be both much smaller and much closer to its subjects than it is today.
One step toward the accomplishment of these goals is the drastic reduction of the amount of tax revenue we allow government.
The hope is that a future Tax Freedom Day will be much closer to the beginning of the year.
David D’Amato, an adjunct law professor at DePaul University, is a policy advisor at the Heartland Institute.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.