Sunday, July 04, 2010

Nowadays problem is taxation without comprehension

Published in The Tennessean, Sunday, July 4, 2010

Nowadays problem is taxation without comprehension

by Richard J. Grant

Shortly after she had made the transition from prime minister to baroness, I attended a lecture by Margaret Thatcher. In a noticeably extended portion of her speech she waxed admiringly about the achievements of Thomas Jefferson. Though this was a meeting of the Empire Club, with most of the audience being Her Majesty's subjects, it was more than a punchline when she added, “But after all, he was an Englishman.”

Jefferson was indeed an Englishman, as were his colleagues. Were it otherwise, it is hard to imagine what sort of society would have emerged in North America. Just as it matters where we come from, it matters even more from where our institutions come.

The American rebellion against the Crown was not unprecedented in British history: the Glorious Revolution, for example, had occurred less than a century before. Observers closer to the times, such as Joseph Jekyll and Edmund Burke, would each characterize such revolutions as preservers of the existing social realities, not as upheavals. Contemporary use of the word “revolution” often implied coming full circle rather than a discontinuity. Jekyll is reputed to have characterized the Glorious Revolution as “a revolution not made, but prevented.”

Preceding both revolutions, the kings’ actions alienated significant portions of their subject populations. In the Americas, the colonial experience had undoubtedly selected against those individuals unequipped to survive on the frontiers of civilization and against those settlements established on unviable economic institutions. The colonials were British, but the experience and successes of freedom created a tension in the centripetal political bands that seemed less to connect them to, than to bend them to the will of, the mother country. Thus the list of grievances that Jefferson included in the Declaration of Independence.

Words would not settle the matter. It would be settled by strength of will and force. But the inflammatory touch of the French philosophe in the Declaration – which characterized Jefferson, not colonial society – beckoned to a future military ally.

Despite the disruptions and burdens of war, military victory allowed the continuity of a society that had evolved naturally and had long since existed in fact. Burke would not approve American separation from the Empire any more than future American federalists could countenance the secession of one of their own states. But the U.S. Constitution that later emerged was clearly informed by the British Constitution and allowed Americans to enjoy what Burke would call “the chartered rights of Englishmen.”

This was in stark contrast to the unhinged rationalism of the Jacobin movement in France that attempted to sweep away all vestiges of the past – God, King, aristocracy, and even the calendar – and to restart society as if from a state of nature, much as their modern-day descendents try to hit the “reset button.” The reign of terror that followed, to be replaced only by a great leader who thrived on war till the end, should not have been a surprise.

We have grown and changed since then, but the essential needs and nature of man have not. Institutions that comprehend this will serve to preserve us while allowing us to innovate at the margins. Revolt must give way to getting on with life. But how is it progress when, after 234 years, we have merely exchanged “taxation without representation” for “taxation without comprehension”?

Is it surprising that an older Thomas Jefferson wrote the following in a letter shortly before he became President? “Let the General Government be reduced to foreign concerns only, and let our affairs be disentangled from those of all other nations, except as to commerce, which the merchants will manage the better, the more they are left free to manage for themselves, and our General Government may be reduced to a very simple organization, and a very inexpensive one; a few plain duties to be performed by a few servants.”

After all, he was an American.

Richard J. Grant is a professor of finance and economics atLipscomb University and a scholar at the Tennessee Center for Policy Research. His column appears on Sundays.

Copyright © Richard J Grant 2007-2010