Income tax was a big problem for a lot of people, back before the United States was even formed. In fact, taxes were arguably the main reason this country came to be in the first place. The British Empire was big on taxing folks around the world for this and that, and the pioneers here didn’t really see how the taxes being levied against them were fair. They may have left Europe for a variety of reasons, but once they got here pretty much everyone agreed: life is better for the individual when they are not being taxed to simply exist.
The pioneers were quite a bit different from modern folk, in that they really had to depend on their own fortitude and ingenuity to make it from one day to the next. America started out as a perfect setting for the strong and independent individual to forge their own way in the world with very little interference from any government agency. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine what life might have been like without a government playing the role of the overbearing parent; most modern Americans would have difficulty surviving in such an environment, and very few of us would thrive. We’ve been raised under that influence, by parents who were raised under that influence; and now that income tax in America is just over a hundred years old, nobody alive today really remembers what it was like before we began to be treated like children by our rulers.
We might argue that one caused the other, and cite the success of those pioneers as proof; but stripping away generations of conditioning in one fell swoop would not turn most folks into independent thinkers with pioneer spirits. Most of us would act like children whose parents died suddenly if the federal government evaporated. You can’t give a teenager the keys to the car if they haven’t been taught some level of responsibility, and you can’t give a nation that has relied on its government for so long true and actual freedom. At the risk of mixing metaphors, we’re talking about a lot of car crashes happening all at once.
I have always found it amusing that ‘taxing’ is seen as having two meanings. We can call what we’re talking about here the first meaning, and say a tax is something you pay to a government agency when you buy something or make money or sell something or employ someone. That’s just a small sample of the creativity that goes into taxing people, but the real genius in all this is that most people have been conditioned to believe that taxes are simply a natural and necessary part of life. We may find ourselves in a taxing relationship, do the healthy thing and get out of it; but when we get a bill for existing, we just pay it. Somehow we’ve been trained to see one as an imposition, and the other as a given.
Really, though…they’re the same word, with the same meaning. It doesn’t matter if your friend or your lover or your government is the one taxing you; what matters is that when anyone places onerous and rigorous demands on you, they are taxing you. Most of the time you have the freedom to turn your back on this unhealthy relationship; but if you refuse to be used in this manner by the government, you will undoubtedly lose most of the freedoms you do enjoy. So pay your taxes, but don’t labor under the delusion that you’re making the world a better place by doing so. You’re funding the greatest military machine in history, and keeping yourself out of jail, but that doesn’t make this relationship any less taxing.
The first time income tax was introduced in this country, most folks were pretty happy to pay it. We were at war, after all; and those who couldn’t fight for their independence with weapons jumped at the chance to financially support those who were. When the war was over, the tax was repealed; and everyone kind of figured it was time to get on with being America again. Since avoiding taxation without representation was one of the main tenets of what we were founded on, it was only natural for those people to go back to what felt natural for them.
When I first starting reading an Ayn Rand book, I wanted to dismiss it immediately to get back to my conveniently dependent world view. It was her insistence that someone had to tell Americans of tomorrow what our counterparts from yesteryear were once like that grabbed me, though. She had seen the country before and after federal income tax was imposed, and the differences were immediately evident according to her.
Before the introduction of permanent income tax in America, the men and women in this country held their heads high as they walked down the street; they greeted each other with friendly nods and hellos, even when they were total strangers. There was a certain level of camaraderie between common folk, and it was understood that each person was happy to bear the load of taking care of themselves and their loved ones.
By Rand’s estimation, it was a country full of hope; and Americans were a people who took the responsibilities that came with freedom and independence very seriously. They knew making it on your own was hard work; but they also knew everyone else was carrying that same singular burden. Since she had just come here from Russia, Rand was immediately won over by the political and social climate she witnessed here. The opportunities created by putting each individual at the helm of their own financial lives were evident to her, and she was eager to see the practice play out longterm.
It was not to be, however. Rand saw the way people changed when the government began to punish people for making money. Her theory was that these people realized they had all been tossed into the same boat by paying a portion of all the money they made, and their former pride slipped away along with a percentage of their income. The average worker knew they were supporting anyone who didn’t feel like working with their efforts now, and those efforts would never be enough to take care of everyone who was not on a path of financial independence. Also, that old motivation was gone; if there was no finish line, there was also no reason to push to cross it. Only those people really obsessed with producing could hope to garner any kind of success, and it would be at the cost of putting a lot of money towards someone else’s vision.
We might disagree with Rand on a lot of things, but we shouldn’t dismiss her assertion that people became different after income tax was instituted. She said more than once that this was the most important part of her message, and that she feared the day would come when no one was around to remember how proud of a people Americans once were. We might be accustomed to walking down the street and ignoring our fellow citizens, and it might even feel natural to us after all this time; but she was dismayed when people began to hang their heads in the streets, and avoid eye contact with all those people they were now either beholden to or who were beholden to them.
Now that day has come, and we have a generation coming up who are just as soft as they are certain that the government should be taking care of them. As we collectively forget the horrors of socialism, more and more young people insist that socialism is the only way to go. As far as the importance of her message…it’s lost on us these days, just as those memories of a proud America are.
Other countries have taken different paths, and we might still have time to learn from them. But here in America, companies are expected to take care of a slew of things that are covered by the government in most civilized nations. Holiday pay and health care are prime examples of this, but they are really just the beginning. Even though the American government collects a ridiculous amount of money from the people, they spend so much of it on an endless war machine that there just isn’t enough left to go around when it comes time to take care of its citizens. They have done a wonderful job of demonizing corporations for all these shortcomings, without addressing the fact that very few other governments rely on the people providing the jobs to also provide a host of other costly benefits.
We might have gone the direction these countries did, and increased the income tax over the years so the common citizen would see more and more of these benefits through our combined effort as a country; or we might have stayed our course, not changed the part of our country’s constitution that protected us from tyrannical warlords, and ended up in the place of pride and independence that Ayn Rand thought we were initially headed toward. But we chose neither of those paths. Instead we are right here where we are, policing the world and also somehow forever indebted to it financially. It’s enough to make a guy like me wonder how things might be different, if we had taken another route.
Of course, I’m no political historian or anything. Surely this is an issue far too complicated for me to understand without a lifetime of study, and perhaps I would see it completely differently had I thus immersed myself in this subject. Maybe I’d be all for higher taxes and more military intervention, and perhaps I’d be behind the continued effort to borrow more money from the world so we are in a better position to blow it up.
I mean, I doubt it; but maybe.
Thanks for reading!
All the best,