by Martin Harris
The early-20th-century Oliver Wendell Holmes quote –“taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society”—is true enough, but alongside it, similarly incised into the marble entablature of the somewhat-imitation-Greek-temple Treasury Department/Internal Revenue Service building in Washington, DC, should be the early-19th-century John Marshall quote –“the power to tax is the power to destroy”- because, as recent events in politics have shown, there are always some people who gravitate into politics at least partially for the venal pleasures, advantages, and proceeds of electoral power. The supposedly above-mere-politics mechanics of collecting the funds needed to run the machinery of government have been and still can, all too readily, be used by people with such motivations for their own purposes. Most recently, it’s the Progressives who have been exposed for using the IRS to advance just such tactics, and it’s a major historical irony that the Progressive movement which was started up, at the end of the 19th century, as a pushback against just such crony-capitalism/Chicago-thug behavior, has now been revealed as a skillful participant.
SCOTUS Justice Holmes, as an early Progressive, would have been appalled by what his political descendants have done –targetting their conservative enemies for intrusive audits, threatened and real, and for nearly-interminable delays in free-speech permitting– but SCOTUS Chief Marshall, as a pre-Progressive Founding Father, was more realistic about human weakness, particularly in those who (for built-in DNA/genetic wiring or street-learned behavior reasons?) seek careers in government where they can command, control, and extract benefit from, the citizens they are supposedly serving. It isn’t just a Federal-level phenomenon: even in second-smallest-state Vermont, sitting Governor Shumlin is now accused of just such behavior in a personal real estate deal.
And it isn’t just a big-government phenomenon: you can frequently, but not always, see the same sort of behavior –first, the pursuit of a seat on a local planning or school board, then the use of that seat to wield power over building permit applicants or staff and parents, with favoritism or its opposite in such things as Conditional Use permits or curriculum/placement decisions. The recent approving quote by Prez 44 –“use the process to favor your friends and punish your enemies”—illustrates perfectly. The much-less-recent quote by Founding Father and Prez 2 John Adams –“a government of laws and not of men”—illustrates equally perfectly the pre-Progressive understanding of the problem and the remedy: you eliminate the opportunity for personal power- and wealth-seeking in government by writing laws so clear that they can’t be distorted, evaded, or subjectively interpreted according to friendship or enemyship between the rulers and the ruled. The LaFollette Progressives recognized as much when they wrote and spoke of governance by technocratic (a more modern word) experts serving altruistically and, thanks to their higher intellects, above the raw politics of the masses. What they didn’t want to recognize was that even the brightest 10% (themselves) were and are just as wealth- and power-hungry as we their dumber subjects, which explains such self-serving behaviors as real estate deals in Vermont (think Peter Shumlin) and Nevada (think Harry Reid) and IRS tax-persecutions of the opposition –think Prez 37 with his Enemies List and Prez 44 with his get-the-TeaPartiers instructions.
The John Adams cure-prescription –impersonal written rules, not subjective personal interpretations—doesn’t always work everywhere in government, because, on some infrequent occasions, the voters want an insightful new-directions leadership-type as an executive to offer just such informed judgments and as legislators to act on such directions –think McKinley in 1896 and Roosevelt in 1932– which, sometimes the voters get and sometimes don’t. But for most aspects of government, they (we) just want functionaries to run the public service machinery, not to re-design it for personal-advantage ambitions. Case in point: taxes. To pay for the people, buildings, and equipment of day-to-day governance, not to persecute any opposition or to advantage their pro-voter “friends” at the (literal) expense of their no-voters perceived “enemies”.
Early actual example: The National Turnpike westward from Washington across the Appalachians. Its toll-houses still stand in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Users paid to use it; non-users didn’t, directly, although toll costs were built into eventual product retail prices. No subjective Treasury Department judgments about whom to tax for it and how much. Later actual example: the Federal and State gasoline tax originally earmarked solely for highway construction and maintenance. (More recently, subjective-decisions raids on the revenue for, in Progressive opinion, more noble purposes.) And recent theoretical examples: the various flat-tax and sales tax proposals, all predicated on taxpayer discontent with ever-more-complicated and opaque-by-intent tax regulations, interpretations, carve-outs, loop-holes, and recently, for the Progressives’ upper-income enemies, sur-taxes and add-ons. Recent evidence of the venal abilities of politicians to use the IRS (conversely, seven “red” States have eschewed income taxes entirely) in such subjective manner (and IRS’ leaderships’ willingness to be so used) should serve to remind us of the John Marshall “power to tax is power to destroy” quote. The contrast should reinforce popular interest in such non-subjectively-weaponized substitutes as flat and “fair” taxes on consumption of goods and services: understandable, predictable, and automatic at point of collection and just about immune to venal-politician abuse. Indeed, just such sentiments on signs at Tea Party meetings were doubtless major reasons for modern Progressives’ antipathy and their ensuing campaign-to-punish by subjective-law-interpretation.
The original Progressives were of more idealistic instinct and upstanding character. Whether they were really the top 10% of the IQ curve (W.E.B duBois later borrowed the best-and-brightest concept for his “Talented Tenth” campaign for racial leadership advocacy) was never proven, but their inability to foresee how later generations of Progressives would seek and (mis)use power suggests that maybe they weren’t so insightful and perceptive after all. As the recent abuses have shown, modern Progressives have regressed to embrace every political/personal public-trust abuse their own Progressive forebears originally disdained and sought to correct.