Home > A Theory of the State, Politics > Taxes, the Constitution and the Slippery Slope

Taxes, the Constitution and the Slippery Slope

[Note: This was written several weeks ago but not published so it’s a little out of date.]

A modern-day “conservative” is basically a libertarian who doesn’t believe in slippery slopes.  Indeed, there is a widespread denial of the phenomenon which defies logic.  Nearly every time someone tries to point out that something the government wants to do may lead to undesirable consequences, they are met with an automatic dismissal–“oh what the slippery slope argument?” (rolls eyes)—as though practically every time someone has warned of a slippery slope, it hasn’t ended up being the case. (See “argument from intimidation.” )

The left has to whitewash the notion of a slippery slope because their entire movement is based on it.  It is all about getting people to go along with things that most of them wouldn’t want through subtle manipulation over a long time-period.  It’s right there in their name—“progressive.” For too long, conservatives have allowed the government to start down these slopes and then tried to steer the slide away from the collectivist disasters that they are designed to funnel us into.  But they are always one (and quite often several) steps ahead of us because they designed the slope in the first place so that whenever we try to steer around Scylla, there is an undetected Charybdis waiting to swallow us up.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the healthcare debate.  I will get into the economics of healthcare next time but first we have to talk taxes.

There is a real divide in political ideology in the country but it is not between Democrats and Republicans or liberals and conservatives.  It is between people who think society should be socially engineered through force by a centralized authority and those who think it should not.  It’s true that most of the people on the “should not” side are also on the conservative/Republican side.  But how often do you hear a “conservative” pundit say they want “small government” and then in the next segment call for the government to do something to bring down gas prices, fight “speculators,” save children from their parents and engage in all sorts of other interventions designed to engineer society in a supposedly conservative way?

Taxes

In order to have a government you need taxes.  In order to be free, you must have an absolute prohibition on the government (at least the Federal Government) using the tax code to socially engineer society.  Once you let go of the premise that social engineering is the proper purpose of government, and that the proper role of the individual is to try to influence the government to engineer it in the way that individual desires, then you become a libertarian (welcome aboard).  To most conservatives, this sounds great until they realize that giving up this notion means giving up your mortgage interest credit, your earned income credit, your continuing education credit, etc.

Of course, a libertarian tax code would also get rid of all the credits that you don’t use and offset this with lower rates (way lower rates if we also had a libertarian spending policy), so nearly everyone would be better off.  But strangely no congressman ever proposes a bill eliminating all tax credits and lowering rates.  Why is that?  Perhaps it’s because politicians like power and their power derives largely from their ability to divert money to specific segments of the public.  But I digress.

The Constitution

The founding fathers were libertarians.  In light of this, doesn’t it seem like they would have put something in the constitution prohibiting the Federal Government from using the tax code to target certain individuals and behaviors in order to socially engineer society?  Yes it does, and in fact they did just that.

“Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers…”

-Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3

“No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in proportion to the Census or Enumeration herein before directed to be taken.”

-Article 1, Section 9, Clause 4

So how is it that we just witnessed the Supreme Court uphold a bill which gives the Federal Government the power to force every individual to buy healthcare on the grounds that the penalty for not complying is actually a tax?  The answer, of course, is that we allowed progressives to undermine this important provision of the constitution a hundred years ago when we passed the 16th amendment.

You might recall when President Obama expressed his regret that the constitution was only a charter of negative rights saying what the government can’t do to you and not a charter of positive rights saying what the government must do on your behalf.  The response of conservative commentators was to shout “see, he wants to change the constitution from a charter of negative rights into a charter of positive rights!”  But this was a misdirection, as I pointed out a while back.

What we should have said is “wait a minute, it’s actually not either of those things, it is a charter of enumerated powers.  It says what the government may do on your behalf.”  This is a very important distinction. All of the debate over the healthcare law was centered on the commerce clause.  The question was posed: can the government force us to buy broccoli under the commerce clause?  The court avoided answering this question, and so far nobody is asking the same question with regard to the power to tax.  Can the government “tax” me if I don’t buy broccoli?  Of course, the answer is yes.  Whatever the government wants me to do, it can declare a tax against me if I fail to do it.  There is no longer anything which falls outside of the enumerated powers of the Federal Government.

So what is the point of the constitution then?  It stops the government from discriminating against me based on race, infringing on my freedom of speech, freedom of religion, right to bear arms, etc. The protections contained in the constitution have been reduced to only those protections which are specifically mentioned.  In other words, it has been transformed into a charter of negative rights.

The slippery slope

Imagine the response if, in 1913, you had stood up and said “if we allow this amendment, there will be nothing stopping the government from taking over the healthcare industry, or any other industry, and telling us what we have to buy, and how much we have to pay for it, because this will ultimately transform the constitution from a charter of enumerated powers into a charter of negative rights.”  But the reality is that this power to tax us however they see fit, does give them the power to do pretty-much anything they want to us.  (Speaking of slippery slopes, in 1913, the top rate was 7% and this was supposed to be temporary.  By 1918, it was 77% and in 1944, the top rate was 94% and the first bracket was 23%)

I’m not making a slippery slope argument in reference to the future. I am making it in reference to the past.  We have been sliding for a century, the whole process is right there in the history books.  There is no speculation involved, you just have to look around and notice that we are at the bottom of the hill.

It’s not enough to just blame Obama or Democrats or Chief Justice Roberts or the media for what is happening.  This is happening because Americans have lost touch with the moral and philosophical foundations of liberty.  If we hadn’t we would have stopped it in 1913 (along with a lot of other things that started in 1913).  Progressives actually don’t want liberty and they are purposely trying to undermine it.  Conservatives don’t want this, we have just been tricked into going along with it.  But the reason we fell for it is because we stopped being libertarians.

This government is a Hydra with so many heads nobody can count them.  There is always one head nuzzling up to you while six others are devouring your neighbor.  Then, when one suddenly comes for us, our reaction is to try to cut off the head, but even if we succeed in cutting it off, two more spring forth (repeal and replace?).  In the end, everyone gets eaten unless we actually slay the monster—unless we can look at the head nuzzling us, the head devouring us and the head claiming to be protecting us from the one that is devouring us and say “you all gotta go”–in short, unless we become libertarians again.

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