The American Revolution, as all Americans are taught, began as a rebellion against unfair taxation; in the United States today, however, some 230 years after James Otis protested the Stamp Act, unimaginably higher taxes are imposed on the American people and collected by means that would have seemed tyrannical to George III.  Britain had no tax on income per se, and if government had proposed collecting taxes from income before that income was received—which is how the withholding tax operates—riots would have broken out.  Still, the more loudly our political leaders and economic “experts” clamor for tax reform, the worse the system gets.

For all the thousands of hours of talk and millions of pages of reports and proposals, the government continues, with a few minor ups and downs, to increase its share of citizens’ wealth and income, and—despite the promises of budget cuts, fiscal restraint, and tax reform—American taxpayers, decade by decade, are paying more money for more government.  The exceptions are not worth mentioning because, in the long run, they are statistically meaningless.

Liberals trot out the familiar argument that people want services, but they do not like to pay for them.  Setting aside the difficult question of what people may or may not actually want, let us look at those “services”: a system of schools designed to retard intellectual growth and corrupt the morals of the students, a welfare system that rewards irresponsibility and produces poverty and crime; a system of common defense that encourages illegal aliens, some of them terrorists, to overrun the country, committing crimes up to and including the destruction of the World Trade Center.  Northcote Parkinson, when asked what recommendation he would give the reform-minded Jimmy Carter, made one suggestion: Cut the federal budget across the board by ten percent every year until it is cut in half.  Only then would it be time to look for further cuts of unnecessary or wasteful programs.

It was a good idea (so was Gramm-Rudman-Hollings), but, no matter what budget reform—whether of taxing or spending—is proposed or undertaken, the long-term result is always the same: Those who control the government have more of our money.  They also have more of our power.  There is a finite amount of power in any society, and the more we give to government, the less control we have over our own lives.  In the old American system, most power was in the hands of individuals, families, communities, and private associations (colleges, unions, business corporations).  Some was invested in local and state governments, and a tiny amount was allocated to the national government.  In the pyramid of power, the people at the top of the pyramid had the least—as in a real pyramid.

Now, however, the pyramid is inverted, and government agencies school and regulate children; states dictate policies to cities and local school systems; and the federal government is doing its best to live up to Hobbes’ term (by no means derogatory) Leviathan.  I would prefer to call it Godzilla, a malevolent and destructive monster that inspires an almost religious reverence in the servile masses who run screaming through the streets.  They know it will destroy them, but, in some dim way, they accept the righteousness of the monster’s cause.

In the old America, we said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  In the new America, we “fix” everything that works (families, private schools, small farms and businesses) by breaking them, and the things that are truly broken—our fractured borders, our violence-torn cities, our expanding deficits—we treat with benevolent neglect.  The one thing that never breaks, however, is government, because it is a machine, gone out of control, that grows by feeding on its victims.

My naive conservative friends continue to speak of fixing this or that inequity in the budget or of controlling spending.  For the most part, their (mostly) well-intentioned schemes and projects are rooted in delusion.  There are two primary reasons why government, as it exists today, cannot be fixed, and, until we address those root causes, there can be no hope for improvement.  The first cause is the beast itself, the democratic political system; the second is more philosophical: the misguided attempt to find technical solutions to what are essentially moral problems.

As they have evolved, democratic political systems run on the money provided by the supporters of political candidates.  Since the congressman’s first and most important job is to get reelected, he begins his fundraising campaign even before he takes office.  Whatever good intentions (and those are rare enough) might have propelled him into politics, he soon learns in Washington that his job consists of two parts: taking money from lobbyists, PAC’s, and interested supporters and voting for the projects they endorse.  Eventually, every politician worth his kickbacks comes to realize that his main reason for seeking and exercising power is to sell it to the highest bidder.

In a democracy, the system is aggravated in two ways.  First, as a system gets bought and paid for by competing interest groups, it loses the ability to respond to crises or to reform itself.  Congressional “gridlock,” as economist Mancur Olson has brilliantly explained, is the direct result of democracy, and the longer a democratic system has been in place (as in Britain), the more corrupt and inefficient it is.

Second, corruption under oligarchies and monarchies, while it breeds inefficiency, is not always the foundation of the system, as it is in a democracy.  A king has the power to clean house from time to time.  Congressmen cannot clean house, because any real reform—budget cuts, tax cuts, federalist plans to transfer power back to the states—would ultimately have the effect of diminishing the congressman’s utility to the lobbyists.  Why would a Dick Gephardt or an Orrin Hatch surrender the control of government resources on which his personal power and wealth depend?

All schemes to reform government founder on this rock: They would have to be implemented by politicians.  The practical reformer’s dream is to raise enough money to buy off a congressional majority, but even if we could put our hands on all the money in the world, we would still face the deeper problem: the technical delusion.  The technical delusion manifests itself in many ways in every part of our public conversation about social ills.  Whatever the evil—poverty, drug abuse, illegitimacy, obesity, corruption of public officials, children falling off swing sets—there is a technical fix provided by a specialized discipline like political science, psychology, or economics.  This is one of the reasons we no longer speak of evil, only of problems for which “they”—that is, the scientists, specialists, and politicians—will devise a solution.

The social sciences, on which Americans waste billions of dollars annually, are the product of this delusion.  Can anyone tell me of a sociologist or psychologist or political “scientist” who has ever “fixed” or even improved anything, unless the fix was accidental or based on common sense?  An economist might make an approximate guess about how 78 out of 100 human beings might act in a given situation, but he cannot predict how you or I will act.  Good economists know this; the rest do not.

There are no sciences (in the limited sense in which physicists and chemists use the term) of human behavior or human society, and the delusion that there are leads to the further delusion that moral problems—such as gluttony, fornication, adultery, drunkenness, and greed—can be eliminated or fixed.  The problem of high and unjust taxes is a moral one, not just in the limited sense in which Republicans complain that the Democrats’ soak-the-rich policies are rooted in the sin of envy.  They are right, of course, but there is a deeper problem, and it lies with the nature of taxation itself: the assumption that one set of people—those who rule the state—possess a preemptive right to the incomes and property of another set of people, the taxpayers we used to call citizens.

The Constitution of the United States contains a prohibition on all “capitation” that is not levied on the basis of a census—in other words, the Congress could not directly tax individuals except through the states and on a per capita basis.  The old word for such taxation is tribute, an involuntary payment made to a superior or foreign power in acknowledgement of submission.

In the history of free peoples, such tribute is paid only in times of emergency.  The citizens of Republican Rome were required to pay tributum only during wartime, and even then there was an expectation that the money would be paid back (which sometimes happened).  What was and is important is the assumption that the citizens’ money belongs to the citizens and not to the government.  If a collective danger threatens, then no real citizen would withhold his contribution, and, once Hannibal was defeated and Italy in ruins, he would not complain if the loan was never repaid.  Regular taxation of persons, however, was something imposed on Rome’s imperial subjects, and, even under the empire, Italy enjoyed exemption from the tribute for a long time.  When Romans in Italy were finally forced to pay the tribute, the concept of Roman citizenship had been rendered meaningless, and the empire was ruled by successful generals.

The Roman experience reminds us that a citizen’s wealth and property belong to him and not to the government, which can only confiscate a free man’s property in times of national emergency.  To take a beach house and convert the land to a harbor fortification may well be justified, but eminent domain, when used as a means of enriching developers or providing space for a baseball stadium, is an unjust tax, inconsistent with republican liberty.

If a citizen’s money belongs to him, then the withholding tax turns taxpayers into slaves.  Even if the withholding system could be reversed, however, a national income tax could only be imposed for purposes that the vast majority of citizens agreed were vital and not merely useful or desirable: billions for defense but not one cent for education, “the arts,” or the system of agricultural subsidies that have put small farmers out of business.  Projects for wealth transfer, whether from rich to poor or white to black, are not merely unwise or unproductive: They are immoral by definition and contrary to the principles of a free society.

Champions of the Constitution all know the story that Davy Crockett told of the constituent who objected to Congress’s appropriation of $20,000 for relief of the victims of a fire in Georgetown.  The disgruntled taxpayer did not object to either the justice of the cause or the amount paid (although it is interesting to note that Congress would spend the nation’s money on its own back yard).

There were basic issues at stake, argued the constituent.  “The power of collecting and disbursing money at pleasure is the most dangerous power that can be intrusted to man . . . ,” and, under the Constitution, “Congress has no right to give charity.”  What can be done for one can be done for all, and

you are at liberty to give to any and everything which you may believe, or profess to believe, is a charity, and to any amount you may think proper.  You will very easily perceive what a wide door this would open for fraud and corruption and favoritism, on the one hand, and for robbing the people on the other.

Crockett and his friend were not just simple men of the frontier: They were republicans, and, until we can persuade at least a few politicians of the simple moral fact that our money belongs to us, it is idle to hope that we can either reform our taxes or restore our liberties.