Independence Day Celebration For A New Millennium

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Technically,
this is the first American Independence Day celebration for the
new millennium.

It’s
a good day to think back on the world we have lost. We were handed
a great legacy by 56 brave men who put their lives on the line
when they put their names on the paper. The Declaration of Independence
was passed by the Continental Congress on July 2, but signed on
July 4. They prudently kept their signatures
secret
for several months.

The
split with England had been developing for over a decade. It became
a reality in Massachusetts in the spring of 1775, with the famous
midnight ride of Paul Revere and the assembling of what became
known in retrospect as the minute men. British troops were coming
to confiscate the guns and ammunition of the local militia. The
militia had other ideas. These ideas later resulted in the Second
Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The
war had begun over a dispute about taxation. The colonists wanted
to have control over taxation through their legislatures and local
assemblies. They did not want to submit to England’s taxation
from London. They also were unhappy with the Empire’s restrictions
on trade. John Hancock was a smuggler, not an insurance salesman.

Not
many Americans know what the level of taxation was in 1775. I
did a graduate school paper on this topic over 30 years ago. English
taxes were in the range of 1% of income in most colonies, and
possibly as high as 2.5% in the plantation colonies. For this,
they went to war.

The
issue was not merely money; it was a matter of sovereignty. The
minority of colonists who followed Sam Adams and Patrick Henry
were convinced that Parliament did not lawfully possess sovereignty
in America, which English constitutional theory asserted. These
men were breaking with the idea of the British empire.

There
was a religious issue, too: the threat of the Church of England’s
sending a bishop to the colonies. A bishop had to ordain priests.
The bishop who possessed this authority over colonial churches
was the bishop of London. It took a long and expensive trip to
London for a man to be ordained. Congregationalists, Baptists,
and Presbyterians preferred it this way — not to mention
Maryland’s Catholics. They regarded the Church of England —
correctly — as an extension of British rule in America. The
king was the head of the church. (See the 1962 book by Carl Bridenbaugh,
Mitre
and Sceptre
.)

The
war was fought over sovereignty: taxation, religion, and the proper
distribution of powers within civil government. The colonists
who went to war with England did not trust central government.
They regarded the lawful authority of civil government as one
government among many, sharing authority with self-government,
family government, and church government. They regarded with hostility
Parliament’s claim of total sovereignty over the affairs of British
citizens.

Today,
most Americans regard such theoretical and theological issues
as quaint, or curious, or naive. The central government does not
officially claim the absolute sovereignty that British legal theory
claimed for Parliament in 1776, but in fact the invasion of our
liberties is far worse than anything conceived by the most traditional
of Tory political theorists in 1776.

A
slogan in the era of the American Revolution was “No taxation
without representation.” Today, we have representation, and our
taxes reflect a level of confiscation that would have been regarded
as tyrannical by citizens of every nation in 1776.

Ancient
Taxation Tyranny

In
ancient Israel, when the people came to the prophet Samuel to
request that he ordain a king, he warned them against doing this.

And
he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and
give to his officers, and to his servants. And he will take your
menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men,
and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth
of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants (I Samuel 8:15-17).

The
Hebrews had been enslaved in Egypt. Their deliverance by God had
established them as a nation. Under Joseph, God had placed Egypt
into a form of bondage. The Pharaoh had collected grain as taxes
for seven years, storing it for a coming famine. Then the central
government sold it back to the people when the famine hit. By
the second year, they were ready to sell their land to Pharaoh.

Wherefore
shall we die before thine eyes, both we and our land? buy us and
our land for bread, and we and our land will be servants unto
Pharaoh: and give us seed, that we may live, and not die, that
the land be not desolate. And Joseph bought all the land of Egypt
for Pharaoh; for the Egyptians sold every man his field, because
the famine prevailed over them: so the land became Pharaoh’s (Genesis
47:19-20).

Then
they accepted forced relocation into the cities of Egypt (v. 21).
“Only the land of the priests bought he not; for the priests had
a portion assigned them of Pharaoh, and did eat their portion
which Pharaoh gave them: wherefore
they sold not their lands” (v. 22).

Then
Joseph said unto the people, Behold, I have bought you this day
and your land for Pharaoh: lo, here is seed for you, and ye shall
sow the land. And it shall come to pass in the increase, that
ye shall give the fifth part unto Pharaoh, and four parts shall
be your own, for seed of the field, and for your food, and for
them of your households, and for food for your little ones. And
they said, Thou hast saved our lives: let us find grace in the
sight of my lord, and we will be Pharaoh’s servants (vv. 23-25).

Egypt
was the most bureaucratic tyranny in the ancient world. But for
today’s residents of the Western democracies to return to the
level of tax tyranny of Egypt, it would require tax cuts of at
least 50%. To return to the authoritarian rule of the Hebrew kings,
it would take a tax cut of 75%.

A
century ago, no Western nation had a level of taxation greater
than the burden of the Hebrews under the kings.

What
the West has surrendered to the central government since World
War I has been its liberty. We are not free men by the prevailing
standards of 1913.

Americans
like to think of themselves as a free people. We occasionally
even sing the phrase, “land of the free and the home of the brave.”
But we sing it ever less frequently. I have not been to a patriotic
Fourth of July parade as an adult. I have never heard a single
Fourth of July political speech. Few Americans under age 55 have.

We
shoot off a few firecrackers. We drive out to some location and
watch an hour of tax-funded fireworks. But that’s about all that
remains of the Fourth of July.

How
many Americans have ever read all of the Declaration of Independence?
Not many. Few students in high school ever spend as much as one
class period studying its accusations against the king.


“They Don’t Know the Difference”

My
first full-time job was with the Foundation for Economic Education
(FEE), in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. Its founder, Leonard
E. Read, used to give a speech in which he surveyed the history
of American taxation. He showed how the rates had grown higher
until the state was extracting 40% or more of our wealth. Step
by step, American voters had adopted the politics of plunder.
Read then concluded: “They don’t know the difference between freedom
and slavery.”

He
was right. Most people don’t know the difference. The number of
free societies is declining today. Communism was a terrible evil,
but the governments that replaced Communist rule are not free
societies by 1913 standards.

There
is comparative freedom, of course, just as there are comparatively
strong fiat currencies — compared to each other today. But
World War I destroyed the international gold standard, the free
movement of individuals (there were no mandatory passports in
the West in 1913), and single-digit taxation.

The
voters do not know the difference. They think there was an eleventh
commandment: “Thou shalt not steal, except by majority vote.”
They have adopted the politics of plunder, best described by Frederic
Bastiat a century and a half ago in his great little book, The
Law
. He presents three choices for a society:

  1. The few plunder the many.

  2. Everybody plunders everybody.

  3. Nobody plunders anybody.

We
are clearly in living under system two. To regain our freedom
— to return to system three — will take more than a
declaration of independence. It will take a revolution in our
thinking as Americans.

I
can think of no better booklet to read on Independence Day than
Bastiat’s The Law. When British taxation in 1776 looks
like a utopian restoration of liberty, we have a lot of educational
work ahead of us.

July
4,
2001

Gary North [send him mail]
is the author of an eleven-volume series, An Economic Commentary
on the Bible. The latest volume is Cooperation and Dominion:
An Economic Commentary on Romans. The series can be downloaded
free of charge at www.freebooks.com.

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