“The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” Article I, Section 8, U.S. Constitution.
“The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.” Sixteenth Amendment, U.S. Constitution.
All governments require revenue in order to function. Collecting taxes is a basic function of government, but somehow “tax” and IRS have become dirty words to many. Cutting taxes without any thought for the consequences has become the mantra for right-wing groups. What did the founders think about this?
Adam Smith published the book “Wealth of Nations” in 1776. This book is generally considered the basis for modern capitalist theory. The authors of the Constitution would have been well aware of this major work. Smith said this about taxation: “The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities... What improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”
Smith was not an American, so some may say his opinion is irrelevant. What did our founders say on this subject?
“Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise.” Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1785.
“Many of the opposition [to the new Federal Constitution] wish to take from Congress the power of internal taxation. Calculation has convinced me that this would be very mischievous.” Thomas Jefferson to William Carmichael, 1788.
Was Jefferson alone in his endorsement of progressive taxation? Thomas Paine, author of “Common Sense,” wrote another pamphlet called “Agrarian Justice.” In it, Paine said this: “The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye, is like dead and living bodies chained together. … I care not how affluent some may be, provided that none be miserable in consequence of it. But it is impossible to enjoy affluence with the felicity it is capable of being enjoyed, while so much misery is mingled in the scene.... with respect to justice, it ought not to be left to the choice of detached individuals whether they will do justice or not.”
Paine was writing about estate and property taxes, which he believed should be levied in order to take care of those who needed help. He believed that those who had profited from this country should assist those who had not, with the government in charge of this process.
How about a more modern leader? In 1910, Teddy Roosevelt said, “I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and … a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.”
Roosevelt was a vocal opponent of huge inherited fortunes and believed that anyone with wealth owed an obligation to society: “Every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.” This philosophy would be very unpopular with today’s Tea Party.
“As a matter of personal conviction, and without pretending to discuss the details or formulate the system, I feel that we shall ultimately have to consider the adoption of some such scheme as that of a progressive tax on all fortunes, beyond a certain amount, either given in life or devised or bequeathed upon death to any individual — a tax so framed as to put it out of the power of the owner of one of these enormous fortunes to hand on more than a certain amount to any one individual; the tax of course, to be imposed by the national and not the state government.” What would Roosevelt think of today’s Walton family?
When people such as Sens. Ted Cruz or Rand Paul call for the abolition of the IRS, they are pandering to their base but ignoring our history and our Constitution. If they claim to honor the Constitution, maybe they should actually read it instead of using it as a prop in their un-American rhetoric.
Jeanette Strong’s column appears every other Wednesday.