“I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”
– James Madison, Fourth President of the United States and considered the Father of the United States Constitution.
There seems to be a great deal of confusion in Washington DC, especially on the Left side of the aisle, about the revenue surrendered to the federal government through taxation. For some reason, many Democrats – and all Progressives – seem to believe that they have a right to the citizens’ money, for whatever cause, whatever initiative and/or whatever programs they deem necessary. Not only isn’t this even close to the truth, but to believe so is to have a non-functional understanding of the Constitution and the proper limits of government.
If this needs to be said once it needs to be said a thousand times; it is not the right of the federal government to do with tax revenue what it pleases. Tax revenue, privately earned money that is surrendered to the federal government under law, is meant to fund the vital processes of the federal government as outlined in the enumerated powers of the US Constitution and the whole of the Charters of Freedom.
The 16th Amendment reads:
“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.”
For many in Congress, their understanding of taxation of the citizenry ends here, with the ability to tax. That’s all they understand, that they have the ability to tax the citizenry for the programs they deem worthy of passage and those which the President of the United States signs into law.
But the 16th Amendment doesn’t supersede the enumerated powers (and limitations) set forth in the US Constitution with regard to the power of the Legislative Branch.
Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution reads:
“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; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;...”
The text that seems to be ignored by our elected officials today – and by every Congress since the inception of the progressive income tax, is this:
“...shall be uniform throughout the United States…”
It can be argued that by the federal government imposing the same progressive tax structure on all 50 states and the citizens thereof, that they are imposing a “uniform” system of taxation onto the citizens of the United States and, thus, satisfying the requirement that all “Duties, Imposts and Excises” are uniform, imposts defined as both a tax and a duty.
But, it can also be argued that the meaning of “uniform,” as understood by the Founders, weighed more heavily on the uniformity of the tax itself, rather than the uniform application of taxing vehicle.
This brings me to a critical point. Etched into the façade of the United States Supreme Court Building in Washington DC are these words: “Equal Justice Under the Law.” If the power to tax is supported by the power of the law then we must suppose that there is an inferred equity present in the tax system; that the burden of taxation be equally distributed among the citizenry and the enterprises of our citizenry. Yet, we in the United States labor under a “progressive” tax system.
A progressive tax system is defined as:
“...a tax by which the tax rate increases as the taxable base amount increases… Progressive taxes attempt to reduce the tax incidence of people with a lower ability-to-pay, as they shift the incidence increasingly to those with a higher ability-to-pay…”
Put succinctly, under a progressive tax system, the wealthier you are the higher the rate of taxation imposed upon you and, therefore, the more taxes you pay.
This bring to mind one of the central tenets of Marxism:
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
This presents a Constitutional, moral and ethical juxtaposition. If, as the façade on the US Supreme Court building states, we are a nation of “equal justice under the law,” then we have a major transgression of that equal treatment in the application of the progressive tax system.
Constitutionally – or legally, as a matter of accounting, we are governing different groups of citizens (the wealthy, the upper middle class, the middle class and those below the poverty line) differently from one another. There is no uniformity in the taxation but for the vehicle itself.
Morally and ethically the progressive tax system is at best a divisive instrument that creates animosity between governmentally define “classes” of citizens, especially when these divisions are amplified by opportunistic politicians for the purposes of political posturing.
I address all of this as Democrats and Progressives in the lame duck session of the 111th Congress argue about the extension of the Bush Tax Cuts – more accurately described as the current rate of taxation – and other vehicles of taxation. Without fail, each time I hear a Democrat or Progressive protest that the wealthy aren’t being taxed enough I wonder how “equal justice under the law” and “uniformity” are being served? The truth is, these two founding principles of government were effectively abandoned with the implementation of the progressive tax system; that economists prefer it to other taxation models leave me with little solace as Karl Marx, too, preferred the progressive tax model.
With the strength of the Tea Party Movement still continuing to grow, there has never been a better time in recent history to seriously address the long overdue need for a reform of our system of taxation. There are quite a few models being proposed that would not only serve the people of the United States better but garner just as much revenue for the federal government – if not more, in some cases. The Flat Tax, The Fair Tax, a national sales tax – all instituted with the understanding that the current form of taxation would be abolished – would not only put the federal government on a budget – a move sorely needed with the spendthrifts that exist in government today – but limit the extent to which the federal government can reach into the public pocketbook.
James Madison’s words at the beginning of this article ring true today as they ever did. So, too, do these words from Mr. Madison:
“If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions.”
To all elected members of Congress and to all elected members of political bodies at every level, it is crucial for you to remember that the money you spend does not belong to you. It belongs to the American people. You have the privilege of administering the extracted funds on our behalf and according to the limitations of the US Constitution. To allocate, appropriate or otherwise spend our money on ideological or special interests is not only unconstitutional, in the age of the Tea Party Movement, it is a one-way ticket to retirement.
Frank Salvato is the Executive Director and Director of Terrorism Research for BasicsProject.org a non-profit, non-partisan, 501(c)(3) research and education initiative. His writing has been recognized by the US House International Relations Committee and the Japan Center for Conflict Prevention. His organization, BasicsProject.org, partnered in producing the original national symposium series addressing the root causes of radical Islamist terrorism. He is a member of the International Analyst Network. He also serves as the managing editor for The New Media Journal.