Income Tax and the Constitution

The Constitution of the United States was designed to protect the individual states who feared the power of a large central government.  In keeping with that design, the Constitution enumerates the various powers of the Federal Government. This past week a majority of the Supreme Court decided that the health care law known as Obamacare was constitutional, basing its decision on the taxing power granted by the Constitution and the 16th Amendment.

A fundamental presumption of writing the Constitution is the self-preservation of the new nation as such.  Various powers of defense, the ability to make war and treaties with foreign countries are some of the enumerated powers granted to the Federal Government to ensure the country’s continued existence.  What is not enumerated but assumed is the right, the duty of the Federal Government to protect the country as a whole.  At a time of armed conflict within a fractured nation, President Lincoln understood this point more clearly than most – that the utmost responsibility of a President is not spelled out in the Constitution that he had sworn to uphold.

There are two common faults that have caused the downfall of all nations, particularly nation empires: 1) the internal struggle for power by factions; and 2) the inexorable concentration of wealth and property.  The second leads to the first.

In the Federalist Paper No. 9, Alexander Hamilton wrote “It is impossible to read the history of the petty Republics of Greece and Italy, without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions, by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration, between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.”  Periods of calm within those empires were short-lived, “soon to be overwhelmed by the tempestuous waves of sedition and party-rage.”  As we look at and listen to the debates regarding health care, what do we see?  Party-rage.  Day after day, proponents on both sides of the issue make claims that are either blatantly untrue or a tortured stretching of fact.  There are so many dubious claims that reporters at Politifact.org  can only examine the more widely spread claims.

In Federalist Paper No. 10, James Madison, the chief constructor of the Constitution, wrote: “Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.”  Further, he writes “Complaints are every where heard … that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties.”  He explained what he meant by the word faction: “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” 

What is to be done?  Madison wrote “There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controling [sic] its effects.  There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction:  the one by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.”  The first of these methods is undesireable; the second is impractical. Madison concluded “The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.”  He does not condemn people for this tendency to form factions; a well constructed government must deal with this part of man’s nature.

Madison saw “A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning Government, …an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power [who] have in turn divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other, than to co-operate for their common good.  So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions, and excite their most violent conflicts.  But the most common and durable source of factions, has been the various and unequal distribution of property.  Those who hold and those who are without property, have ever formed distinct interests in society. [Many different interests] grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views.  The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern Legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of Government.” [emphasis added]  These astute observations by Madison are true today just as they were two hundred years ago.

In its own self-preservation, a government must ameliorate the “unequal distribution of property” which Madison considers to be the chief cause of factions.  How is a government to do that and preserve the respect for property rights that Madison and the framers deemed essential to a free people?  Madison wrote “From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results: and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.”  As with factions, this contradiction is an essential process of being a free people.  To use the same sentence construction as Madison: there are two methods for removing the causes of the concentration of wealth and property:  the one, by abolishing individual property rights which are essential to a nation of free people; the other, by giving every citizen the same amount of property.  The first is undesireable; the second invalidates the first principle and impractical, as Communist societies discovered.

A well constructed government uses its taxing authority to fund its operation and control the inevitable concentration of wealth and property. Many conservatives of today argue on principle that government’s role is not to transfer wealth from one person to the next.  They ignore the history of the decline of many nations whose wealth concentration reached a critical mass that ignited revolution.  They forget that the first principle of a nation is its own preservation; that a nation MUST transfer enough wealth to slow its concentration among a small portion of its citizens.  By its very nature, a property or income tax takes, by threat of force, the property of a person.  The principle of respect for individual private property rights can not be sustained in the ideal if a nation is to survive.

The income tax, or 16th, amendment was “sold” to the state legislatures as a way to tax corporations and very wealthy individuals.  For corporations, the income tax was to be an excise tax or a fee for the exemption from liability that a corporate structure afforded its stockholders.  Today many conservatives advocate a flat tax or a less progressive tax rate structure, citing the uneven distribution of the tax burden on the rich.  When the legislatures voted on this amendment, they did so on the premise that almost all people would not be subject to the income tax.   Corporations and those with extremely large incomes were to shoulder the entire burden of the income tax.  Those state house members who voted for ratification would be shocked that the top 1% of income earners paid only 38% of the personal income tax collected in 2008 (National Taxpayers Union).  They would be indignant that corporations paid only 22.1% of the combined total of personal and corporate income taxes collected in 2008 (IRS Statistics  Table 1).  When the 16th Amendment was sold to the American people in 1910 through 1913, these two groups combined were to shoulder most, if not the entire, burden of the income tax.  In 2008, they paid a little less than 52%.

In the coming months billions of dollars will be spent to sway or negate our vote.  The people and corporations who spend these vast amounts of money will try to convince us that we should vote a certain way on principle, out of loyalty to a particular ideal, party or policy.  Those who spend this money are not evil – they are simply promoting their own interests, hoping that they will convince each of us that we share an interest with theirs.  Given a choice of two competing parties, some voters will be undecided, feeling lukewarm or conflicted about the interests of either faction.  We may wish for some alternative to these dominant factions, or a menu where we could pick and choose the narrow interests that most closely align with ours.  It is the nature of mankind that we can not either live or vote in the ideal; that we must make compromises and choose the faction which most closely aligns with our interests.

From the beginnings of this nation, parties have arisen, trying to wrest control of the government, hoping to grab control of its power for their own self-interest.  For its own self-preservation, a well constructed government MUST constantly strive to distribute competing interests and power; since money and property form the core of power, a government must spread just enough money from the richest of its citizens and corporations to the rest of its citizens.   How well a government can do so determines whether the nation survives.

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