Taxes Give Us Freedom, They Don’t Take It Away

December 22, 2014

by Martin Odoni

Oh my, but it is dark out there! I am writing this in the early afternoon of the shortest day of 2014, and as is the case almost every year on 21st December, it is gloomy and dingy outside. That can only mean Christmas is dead ahead, and immediately following on from that is the New Year. (“Oh no!” I hear people cry. “Not another year, we’ve only just got this one out of the way!”)

The year ahead is 2015, and that will be the eight-hundredth anniversary year of the signing of the first Magna Carta at Runnymede, by King John and the English Barons he had been at war with.

Now Magna Carta was certainly not what many people, looking from a modern perspective, seem to imagine it was. The notion that is put about for it is that it is an early, primitive form of Constitution or Bill Of Rights for the general population of England, in the a priori traditions of the US Constitution. But it was awfully early in history when the Charter was drawn up, and many of the ideas we associate with ‘liberty’ and ‘human rights’ today had still to be thought of in any coherent way at that point. If you were to study the Charter’s own texts, instead of the American Declaration Of Independence, you might be a little startled to discover how limited and even how uninspired much of it sounds. Most of the concessions extracted from King John were about tax-relief for the feudal land-owning elite.

Indeed, unnecessary tax was seen at the time as one of the few transgressions of the ‘liberties of the people’ that a despotic King could be capable of. Most other actions he might take were seen as his divine right. But those who had money – in those days that would have been the aristocracy itself – were quite desperate to keep it, so any King taking any of it away from them had better put it to good use. John’s tendency was to impose harsh taxes whenever he felt like it, while at the same time he tamely surrendered the French lands of his Norman/Angevin ancestry to King Philip of France, which was emphatically not a way of putting the cash to good use. Hence the real reason for the Barons’ revolt against him; it was not a fight for the rights of all men, but a fight against heavy taxes that led to no pay-off. This is further the root reason that there is a Parliament in Westminster today; the power to demand taxes was taken away from the reigning monarch, in theory at least, and in future he could only ask for them, with Parliament giving or withholding permission on behalf of the people the taxation would be levied on. This may sound a very long way from ‘democracy’ to our modern ears (but then we still have some way to go before we have a democracy worthy of the name even today), but in British history it was unprecedented and very radical. For the first time since at least the end of the Anglo-Saxon line of Kings, and possibly for the first time in England ever, the law had ceased to be the will of the monarch alone.

It is perhaps money, alongside religion, that has driven most of the revolutions of the Western World since that time, especially the British-or-‘British-offspring’ ones. The Wars Of The Three Kingdoms (more often known misleadingly as ‘The English Civil Wars’) of the Seventeenth Century were probably a religious conflict first and foremost. But many other factors were contributing to growing tensions across the British Isles, and there is no doubt that the biggest trigger-point within England itself was money, when the monarch, Charles I, attempted to raise taxes without Parliamentary approval. The US War Of Independence over a century later was really just an extra round of the Civil Wars of the 1640’s, with taxation once again – rather than a more general desire for ‘freedom’ – being the spark that lit the fuse. Stamp-duty and a variety of other taxes imposed by Westminster on British colonists in North America, all without the colonists having any say in the matter, gradually led to them turning against their motherland, and eventually forming a separate state.

Today, taxes are still seen by many, especially in conservative circles, as an ongoing form of oppression. Many of the most bitter opponents of taxation style themselves as ‘right-wing libertarians’, and their feeling is that no Government has the right to take any amount of money from its civilians, even when consent is given by the majority of the civilians’ representatives. Today, taxes tend to be imposed across all of Europe and North America only with the approval of elected representatives. Furthermore, it is usually representatives themselves, instead of a reigning monarch, who request them to begin with. Taxation therefore can only happen with representation – again, at least in theory. Certainly taxation can be a nuisance to people, especially when levied disproportionally to income and ability-to-pay, but there are checks in place to prevent its abuse.

No taxation will be allowed without representation – one of the lessons of Western history.

An occasional nuisance, as I say, but it is certainly not oppression. To prove that, we need only look at one of the most heavily-policed and unaccountable states on Earth; Saudi Arabia, governed by the absolutist monarchy of the House of al-Saud. It is one of the most repressed nations in the world today, with human rights of any description being largely an abstract concept. Partly theocratic, partly governed on the whims of the ruling House, movement is restricted, women are effectively the possessions of their fathers or husbands, and some of the most harmless and unremarkable behaviours, in Western eyes at least, are illegal and punished by corporal and capital means that seem almost medieval in their barbarity.

That is oppression beyond all doubt. But the interesting thing is, taxation seldom plays a role in it. For all the dreadful things that Saudi Arabia does to its people, it only occasionally levies taxes on its general population. By the right-libertarian understanding of the concept, and especially by their fixation on money, Saudi Arabia is not a particularly oppressive country.

But the reason why Saudi Arabia undoubtedly is an oppressive country but can get away with it is precisely because it does not need to tax its population in order to get funding very often. It is a nation with enormous reserves of petroleum oil that all of the richest nations on Earth desperately, hungrily need a constant supply of, and pay obscene quantities of money for. Thus, the House of al-Saud does not need money from its civilians very often when it can obtain all the funds it needs from outside. In the main, the Saudi Government simply places taxes on the corporate firms that extract the crude from the ground and export it. As the ordinary populace are not needed for much other than labour, their wishes can largely be ignored.

In short, theocracies in the Middle East teach us that the reverse lesson is equally true; no representation will be allowed without taxation. (There was even a parallel in British history, not long after the Civil War period, when the Restored Stuart monarch, Charles II, tried to abandon the use of Parliaments and taxation altogether, and to fund his personal rule exclusively through monies provided by King Louis XIV of France.)

Therefore, it follows that some measure of taxation is not only not oppressive, it can effectively act as a safeguard against oppression, as it makes Governments more dependent on their peoples. For the most part therefore, when they belly-ache for the total abolition of taxation, the right-libertarians are talking complete nonsense, of a type that has the potential to make people more powerless than ever. As more modern history has demonstrated, tax-and-spend that is focused correctly can liberate people in more immediate ways, as redistributing wealth lifts many of them out of poverty, and poverty is the worst oppressor of all. Only when taxes are being levied disproportionally to the ability-to-pay can they contribute to oppression, and even then they do not need to be abolished, merely recalculated.

Now in recent times, I have become something of a student of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), and as an ‘MMT-er’, I am aware that, in the digital age, no Government with its own currency is anywhere near as dependent on taxes for funding as it probably imagines it is. Money is not a resource, therefore a Government can have as much or as little of its own currency as it likes. The delusion that taxes are required for public spending does a lot of needless damage (especially under the ignorant command of the present British Government), but it has its uses too, and my one note of reservation about MMT is that, if everyone understood it, taxation would no longer be as likely to secure representation in Government. The correct purposes behind taxation are to create a demand for the currency, and to control inflation, not to obtain funds. Therefore, a Government that was fully aware of this fact would find it easier to ignore its population’s wishes, at least every so often, as it would realise that it does not require taxation in order to spend. I do want Governments to keep taxing, and not just for reasons of inflation-control.

Many of those who say that taxes are oppressive are well-off. So when they say it, they are usually trying to project their own self interest onto any public body that has better priorities than protecting the fortunes of the fortunate. Hence why I rarely pay much attention to right-wing libertarians. Their obsession with money means they have trouble seeing the difference between keeping money and actually being free, thus making their outlook little advanced from that of the feudal barons of the Middle Ages. It is a simplistic, obsolete position, taken by people who do not see where freedom ultimately comes from or most of the qualities it embodies.

The only ‘freedom’ they really want is therefore a very sad one; the right not to care about anyone other than themselves. While I would defend their right not to care, I feel no impulse to defend their ridiculous attempts to rationalise selfishness by calling it ‘freedom’. Selfishness is not freedom, and anybody who practises the one without interruption probably does not deserve the other.


One Response to “Taxes Give Us Freedom, They Don’t Take It Away”

  1. […] a piece in which Martin Odoni suggests a worrying reason why this might be the […]

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