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Taxes: Socialistic, Imperialistic, Capitalistic?

30 October 2008
Joe Scarborough, MSNBC

Joe Scarborough, MSNBC

What’s wrong with the media?  For the most part they are getting it right on this entire tax argument that is raging in the Presidential campaign.  But, then, of course, there are the purists like Joe Scarborough.

A lot of name-calling has been going on by the Republican candidates surrounding tax policy.  Socialism seems to be the most common allegation, but just in case that’s not scary enough, Marxism is just a stone’s throw away.  What is this all about?  I think it would be interesting to shed a little historical light on the issue to bring it into perspective.

Of course, to most Americans the very word “tax” is anathema.  After all, our nation was founded in a tax rebellion.  What is forgotten in the modern mantra of “no taxes” is that such an idea was never on the table.  The battle cry of the colonists who were our founding fathers was, “No taxation WITHOUT REPRESENTATION!”  Lucky for us, our founders were no dummies and understood that there could be no successful

George Washington at Valley Forge

George Washington at Valley Forge

government without the funds necessary to conduct legitimate business.  In fact, they almost found out in inglorious defeat because the Continental Army under the command of General George Washington was so severely under-funded, it won more by successful strategy than by superior strength — a fact lost by those who wave their flags without real depth of study.

Great Pyramid of Khufu

But taxation goes back to the beginning of civilization and probably beyond.  The great civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt could not have developed without the assessment of taxes to build their societies.  We also know from the New Testament that the Roman Empire was exacting taxes on the people of Judea.  Of course, those references to the “evil” tax collectors have only fueled our disdain for the practice.  But in exchange for those taxes, a certain level of stability was afforded to all those who lived in the Roman Empire and such things as water distribution systems and sewers were built.

Augustus Caesar

Augustus Caesar

One of the things that is often overlooked on the issue of taxation is the fact that governments have long used taxes to modify the behavior of their populations and — yes, Joe the Plumber — spread the wealth around.  One of the more interesting taxes levied by Augustus Caesar was one against single male Roman Citizens.  Seems the population was dwindling, and it was because the young men of Rome were enjoying the free and easy lifestyle of bachelorhood a little too much.  Augustus addressed the problem with a tax to modify their marital and reproductive behavior.  I guess it must have worked.  The Roman Empire lasted a good long while after the death of Augustus.  We see this in our own tax code where people are given deductions for each child they have, and when things are going right, in my view, married couples are assessed a lower tax than single people.  This encourages stable relationships in which to raise a family — a laudable use of behavioral modification by taxation.

Louis XIV of France

Louis XIV of France, the Sun King

Versailles, Hall of Mirrors

Versailles, Hall of Mirrors

Of course Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economic plan was by no means new.  Actually, Louis XIV of France brought forth a version of this model during his reign.  Louis XIV was faced with a bad economy and needed to solve it to maintain his family’s rule over the country.  His idea was grand on the one hand and simple on the other.  It seems that the rich nobility of France was staying at home and hording their wealth.  Louis decided to bring them to court.  He built the magnificent palace at Versailles and demanded that all the rich nobility attend his spectacular parties there and stay over.  Of course, the wise Louis also required that a certain level of style and ostentation be maintained befitting the luxurious surroundings he had built.  What transpired was a model of trickle-down economics at its best.  Suddenly the nobility had to go to Paris where the tailors, seamstresses, cobblers and jewelers lived to get appropriate trappings for their appearance at court.  On top of that, once there, they saw the magnificent surroundings of Versailles and wanted to create as much ostentation as they could afford in their own estates.  The net effect?  Economic stimulus at a level needed to lift France out of its economic malaise.

Elaborate court costume

Elaborate court costume

Execution of Louis XVI

Execution of Louis XVI

So if this model worked so well for Louis XIV, why did it collapse under the reign of Louis XVI?  One word: GREED.  As the middle class of France rose with their new-found patronage by the rich and powerful, they also began to think of themselves as being part of that elite group that they served.  They took on the airs of the aristocracy and began mocking the common laborer below them and ignoring their well being.  Instead of paying their workers, they started using their money to “buy” their way into the aristocracy.  This was by no means a cheap proposition.  So as the party continued unabated at Versailles, the peasants of the countryside and in the city of Paris found themselves hanging to slim threads of hope that their plight would ever become better.  We all know how this story finally played itself out.  In fact, we celebrate it because we somehow believe that the French Revolution bore some resemblance to our own.  In fact, it did not.

The French people were most unlucky in their post-revolution leaders.  They reeled along on a roller coaster ride that took them back and forth from tyrannical leadership to an imperial monarchy to democracy and back to a new monarchy before they finally found their way to a long-standing democratic nation.  Their road was soaked with blood and defeats at the hands of foreign nations.

Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention

Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention

We were lucky that we had the level-headed, thoughtful men who started us down the road to democracy.  They understood the need of representative government to respond to its populace without becoming overbearing and tyrannical.  They knew that a leader who was too powerful could destroy democracy forever, so they guarded against it.  They also knew from their English roots how dangerous religious ideology could be to the freedoms they envisioned for their new republic, so they wrote freedom from such a thing into their early documents.

So five days from now on election day, we are called upon as the recipients of the great gift given to us by our founding fathers to go and support their vision.  Not the made-up vision of ideologues, but the real vision of “equality and justice for ALL.”  We are faced by a choice between a man who makes cynical claims that socialism is upon us, and a man who is level-headed and thoughtful about the real issues that must be addressed in a future that is before us.

CEO Wealthmeter

CEO Wealthometer

I have no basic problem with the idea that lower taxes on big companies and rich people could have a positive impact on those of us living below that level, but the Bush/McCain tax cuts had and still have no measures or incentives to require big business or rich Americans to spend their money in such a way that it would stimulate the American economy and thereby “trickle down.”  Instead, it has relied upon an “honor system” of economic equity.  That’s not what we have seen.  We have seen CEOs building fabulous palaces for themselves and sending their children to exclusive schools while complaining about school taxes and doing their shopping in high-end boutiques where fashionable goods from Europe are pushed as the proper measure of one’s self-worth and wealth.

Without direction from the leaders of our government, tax breaks designed to stimulate the economy are nothing more than giveaways.  While the rich and powerful of this nation have been amassing wealth and living like the elite at

The Sun King, Louis XIV

The Sun King, Louis XIV

Versailles, the populace as a whole has been watching its ability to maintain the position held eight years ago slip from its grasp.  Louis XIV seems to have gotten it right, but Louis XVI, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and John McCain have gotten it wrong.  Louis XIV heavily regulated the spending of his nobility by demanding a certain level of economic stimulus on their part in order to participate in the party.  The third-generation Louis XVI only knew about the party itself.  The results were disastrous for France and the same has been true for the United States.

Thanks for allowing me to share another little history lesson.  Keep fighting the good fight!

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