August 21, 2022
by Stephen Stofka
Over a century ago, the passage of the 16th Amendment allowed the federal government to tax earnings from labor, giving the central government entry into the lives of every American. Fifty years earlier, Congress had passed an income tax to pay the debts incurred during the Civil War. In 1895, the Supreme Court ruled that taxes on income were a direct tax that must be apportioned in accordance with Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. The 16th Amendment bypassed that uniformity requirement to tax incomes at different rates. The target of the income tax was the top 1% but within two decades the tax affected low and middle income groups. The stated goal of current income taxation is income distribution and a leveling of outcomes. A century after the passage of the income tax, income distribution has reached record levels of inequality (FED, 2021). As a leveling device, the income tax has failed.
As tax rates on income increase, incentives to evade the tax rise. Those with the highest rates lobby to have their income excluded or be taxed as a special class. As advocates of Modern Monetary Theory point out, a sovereign nation that issues its own currency does not need tax revenues to fund itself at the margin. Taxes act as a restraint on the purchasing power of private parties and the spending priorities of government. Because income taxes are not levied uniformly, they are especially subject to corruption and political influence by those most damaged by the tax. Billionaire investor Warren Buffett has noted that he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. A tax law meant to curb inequality thus promotes inequality under the law.
Bitcoin* promised anonymous transactions between people at a low cost. It’s anonymity promoted the principle of uniformity, treating large and small transfers equally. The principle of peer-to-peer exchange without government oversight, taxes or exchange fees recalls an earlier time in our history when there was a quasi-boundary between society and the federal government. Society is built on agreement. The foundation of government is forced compliance with the law. An example is our courts and police forces. Political economy is the marriage of these two institutions, force and agreement. Economics is the study of exchange in the search to satisfy our needs. Politics is the study of the division of rights and power. Needs and rights must ever be in conflict.
In conventional exchange, rights are recognized and protected by a government body. Enforcement involves sanctioned force that is concentrated in a small proportion of our society and that concentration of power makes government subject to corruption. The deluge of lobbyists on Capitol Hill is a testament to the dominant power of the federal government. Bitcoin distributes the recognition of rights across a vast public ledger but it lacks an enforcement mechanism to protect those rights. Bitcoin’s principle of distributed consensus offers the promise that the sanctioning of force could be more equitably distributed among majority and minority groups in our society.
Minority groups are often victimized by selective policing that keeps them penned into socio-economic spaces on the fringes of political power. An unpaid parking ticket rapidly accumulates interest and late fees, then becomes a bench warrant and makes someone subject to arrest. The owner of a delivery truck fleet in New York City with multiple double parking violations is rarely arrested. Institutions of enforcement were designed by the majority for the benefit of the majority.
Fear of the police and those institutions is felt deep within everyone in a minority neighborhood. Power tends to concentrate and leads inevitably to autocracy. A distributed ledger principle acts as a curb on that tendency. A community with digital control of police weapons might be able to disable the weapons of an abusive officer, forcing that officer onto desk duty or patrolling parking meters while an incident is investigated. What is science fiction today becomes science fact tomorrow. Fifty years ago a flip phone communicator like the one used on Star Trek was a figment of an author’s imagination. The public ledger technology that forms the foundation of Bitcoin exchange is still in its infancy but it is a vison of distributed community constraint as opposed to the autocratic constraints imposed by government.
In principle, the law is meant to be a uniform constraint. In practice, the law is a constraint warped by those with the money to buy influence and political power. Those who currently have power fight hard to keep it. If public ledger technology could be adapted to a community constraint on the use of force, those with resources would likely develop a way to modify that constraint for their own benefit. Should society abandon the pursuit of a distributed community constraint? No. The internet is younger than the oldest millennial and is pockmarked with scams and illegal activities but the benefits outweigh the dangers. Even if Bitcoin remains a private currency with limited adoption, its technology and principles point to a better world.
Photo by Alexandre Van Thuan on Unsplash. A library is a distributed perspective.
*I’ve used Bitcoin as a substitute word for digital currencies in general.
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. (2021, October 15). How has income inequality changed over the years? Saint Louis Fed Eagle. Retrieved August 20, 2022, from https://www.stlouisfed.org/on-the-economy/2016/june/how-has-income-inequality-changed-years