L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 90, September 18, 2000
Were the Founders a Pack of Thieves?
by Vin Suprynowicz
Special to TLE
About a year back, the post office folks here in Las Vegas decided to close down Bonanza Station and move their operation around the corner to a new building on Martin Luther King, where there are actual parking spaces.
This provided an opportunity for the ever-expanding Donrey media empire to annex the old post office. (From the palatial Main Review-Journal offices, one now enters through a hole in the fence.)
The Internet gurus of lasvegas.com now occupy the old mail-sorting room, where many a Christmas package was doubtless drop-kicked in its time. (I worked for the U.S. Post Office one summer; I saw the target painted above the "fragile" bin, so spare me your letters of righteous outrage. I also know where the carriers spend the hours from noon to 3 p.m., and how the magazines in the plain brown wrappers get dog-eared, so don't get me started.)
Anyway, it was there I was beckoned one evening last week to conduct an "Internet chat," which is like a call-in radio show except that you have to read the callers' questions on a computer screen and then type your answers -- a considerable challenge for us four-finger Fosdicks.
"Vin, assuming you adhere to the Libertarian axiom that 'taxes are theft,' how do you square this belief with the power to tax given Congress in Article I section 8 of the Constitution," asked one interlocutor.
(Oh, there's a good start. I somewhat preferred the fellow who asked what I plan to give returned refugee Elian Gonzalez for Christmas. I asked whether he thought Fidel would let the boy keep a Sturmgewehr-58.)
At the time, I replied to the first question: "I agree with columnist Joseph Sobran, that while a government under the U.S. Constitution might not be perfect, it would be far preferable to the one we have now. A government as limited as intended by the founders would be 90 percent less intrusive. Getting us back to that point might be one good lifetime's work.
"But absolutely, taxes are worse than theft; they are slavery. The thief does not expect you to show up at the same time next year to turn over another third of all you have produced. Ask anyone currently in government what is the maximum tax rate they would allow. Not a one of them will set a limit. They clearly believe all wealth belongs to the state; they allow us to keep only as much as required to keep us quiet."
"So the Framers were thieves?" came back the rejoinder, helping me understand what a rookie feels like when he realizes he's just lobbed one down the middle to Mark McGwire.
"Hey, they were doing the best they could," I replied. Indeed, when one looks at the state of economic and political oppression which prevailed around most of the globe in the 1780s, the foresight of the founders was astonishing, even if admittedly flawed. "I never much cared for counting black folk as 3/5ths of a person, either," I continued. "But remember, the original Constitution permitted no personal income tax; the Supreme Court (though it sure took them long enough) eventually threw out the tyrant Lincoln's income tax. It took a very stupid constitutional amendment to mess this up and put the central government on the direct arterial feeding tube it now enjoys; and some reputable scholars argue that amendment actually created no new taxing power, anyway."
In hindsight, I do think one more thing needs to be added to this reply.
One of the ways we know the government monopoly schools are bad is that virtually everyone who attended one will tell you the Articles of Confederation were not working out in 1787, which is why the delegates had to return to Philadelphia to craft our current Constitution, which all us dutiful students will therefore certify was necessary, inevitable, and good.
If any of us thought to ask teacher why the Articles were bad, we were fed some bunk about how the seaboard states were charging unfair tariffs on good trans-shipped to the landlocked states.
The only problem with that particular hokum being that the first effectively landlocked state -- Vermont -- wasn't admitted to the union until the 1790s.
In fact, one searches contemporary accounts in vain for any reports of rampaging mobs or people starving in the streets from 1781 and 1787 (unlike, say, Russia from 1917 to 1920.) The only "crisis" of the time was simply that the several states weren't ponying up as much money as the central government in Philadelphia wanted.
Well, who ever met a bureaucrat who didn't want more money? This was no accident. The real democratic republicans -- true heroes of 1776, like Jefferson and Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee -- gave us a weak central government under the Articles, on purpose.
In his fine novels of an alternative universe, starting with "The Probability Broach," science fiction author L. Neil Smith asks what America would have been like if the Declaration of Independence had contained just one additional word -- if Mr. Jefferson had thought to declare that governments derive their just powers from "the unanimous consent of the governed."
In that alternative universe, George Washington leads his federal troops to put down the Pennsylvania rebellion against the whiskey tax, and is promptly captured and hanged. Albert Gallatin becomes the next president of the young republic, promising no more of this "tax" stuff. Down to the present day, in Smith's novels, there continues a subculture of frustrated imperialists -- led by a thinly disguised William F. Buckley -- plotting to restore the central taxing authority necessary for their dreams of a majestic, powerful, imperial state. Smith dubs them the "Hamiltonians."
In real life, of course, Hamilton and the federalists waited till Jefferson was safely out of the way in Paris, and then trooped around banging on their shields, winning ratification of their flawed new Constitution based on numerous promises that we need never fear the kind of powerful central government that could, say, bar a state's secession, or override a popular vote in any given state to legalize marijuana, or strike terror in the hearts of the common people with the words " asset seizure," "bank account lien," or "IRS audit."
Why? Because of "safeguards," and "powers divided between jealous factions," of course. In net effect, they promised us the kind of non-government that the Washington Post would today deride as "paralyzing gridlock."
Why, they were even willing to add a Ninth and 10th amendment, swearing that the central government would never be allowed to assume any powers not specifically listed. Not enough for you? We'll even add a Second amendment, promising that no tax or regulation or other "infringement" can ever be allowed to restrict the average citizen from owning, carrying and keeping in his home "the sword and every other terrible instrument of the solder." Why, only a paranoid fool would worry about federal tanks plowing through churches full of innocent women and children, when "The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword," as prominent federalist Noah Webster cooed, "because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops that can be, on any pretense, raised in the United States."
So, to the questioner who asked, "Were the Framers thieves?" let us answer be refusing to lump all those men into one group. Jefferson, Henry, Lee and the many vocal antifederalists were not thieves. Jefferson said "a wise and frugal government ... shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned." These men had our best interests at heart.
Whereas the gang commanded by Alexander Hamilton -- a bunch who thought the nation's capital should be in Mexico City, centrally located in the heart of the region which it was our manifest destiny to eventually conquer and rule -- oh, these were ambitious men.
Thieves? At the very least, it's now well established that they lied through their teeth.