Force and Fraud

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Technically, tax isn’t theft and slavery. But the technical side is all about how you do the taxing, not about what happens to the person and property being taxed. Some of these technicalities do matter to us, the taxpayers, on the principle of “know thine enemy” so we can accommodate ourselves better to the load, but they just aren’t on the same wavelength as the ethical question or the personal experience.

A lot of tax advocates retreat into the area they know to try to justify it, though. They just don’t realise that they are building in their assumptions and addressing the wrong question, any more than the shopkeeper in the Monty Python Dead Parrot sketch did when he admired the plumage and forgot the dying bird — a bird that was, in actual fact, dead. It’s the same way a Vietnam War spokesman was missing the point when he pointed out that, technically, the USA had not invaded Cambodia, it was only an incursion. That was something that made a great deal of difference to the military operation, but practically nothing to the people in Cambodia.

In the same way, another of the usual suspects, Zahi Hawass, trotted the same sort of thing out, explaining how — technically — the pyramids weren’t built by slave labour: “The name of Khufu and his pyramid is always attached to a popular notion that the pyramid was built by slaves. But that was not the case… They were also paid by the king, or worked instead of paying tax.” Well, even if you are going to be technical, it’s still wrong; they hadn’t invented money in those days, so it couldn’t have been tax, could it? As though it made a difference to the people involved if they were obliged to hand over crops or labour instead of currency. If you want to see how the technicalities weren’t the point for the people, look at the Old Testament. Sure, the children of Israel were forced to work for the Pharaoh, but look — when they fled, they had all sorts of possessions they could take with them and homes of their own to mark with blood, so they weren’t really slaves, were they? Technically, they weren’t taxed to build Solomon’s Temple either, for the same reason that money hadn’t been invented, but try reading the description of just how that was done.

And so on down to our own age. We get a clearer picture of just what tax is when we aren’t so close to it, and when the people involved had previously had a different alternative we can compare it with. One case is what the French did when they colonised Madagascar, just over a century ago.

Not that there had been a golden age before, of course. The independent kingdom that was overthrown had relied on something more overt, though — slavery, and forced labour from “free” peasants, a corvée. But look and see just what happened in reforming these things, how the burden was simply rearranged in a technically more convenient way but the burden if anything increased.

Governor-General Gallieni implemented a hybrid corvée and poll tax, partly for revenue, partly for labour resources and partly to move away from a subsistence economy. The last feature involved paying small amounts for the forced labour; that way, not only did it create a demand for money to get out of the corvée, money trickled into the system to close the loop. It’s actually better for the victims than a straight corvée or a straight poll tax, since they don’t get trapped by impossible demands so often — it’s more “progressive” for people who are either feeble or cash poor, “only” destroying people who are both…

“There was the introduction of equitable taxation, so vital from the financial point of view; but also of such great political, moral and economic importance. It was the tangible proof of French authority having come to stay; it was the stimulus required to make an inherently lazy people work. Once they had learned to earn they would begin to spend, whereby commerce and industry would develop.

“The corvée in its old form could not be continued, yet workmen were required both by the colonists, and by the Government for its vast schemes of public works. The General therefore passed a temporary law, in which taxation and labour were combined, to be modified according to country, the people, and their mentality. Thus, for instance, every male among the Hovas, from the age of sixteen to sixty, had either to pay twenty-five francs a year, or give fifty days of labour of nine hours a day, for which he was to be paid twenty centimes, a sum sufficient to feed him. Exempted from taxation and labour were soldiers, militia, Government clerks, and any Hova who knew French, also all who had entered into a contract of labour with a colonist. Unfortunately, this latter clause lent itself to tremendous abuses. By paying a small sum to some European, who nominally engaged them, thousands bought their freedom from work and taxation by these fictitious contracts, to be free to continue their lazy, unprofitable existence. To this abuse an end had to be made.

“The urgency of a sound fiscal system was of tremendous importance to carry out all the schemes for the welfare and development of the island, and this demanded a local budget. The goal to be kept in view was to make the colony, as soon as possible, self-supporting. This end the Governor-General succeeded in achieving within a few years.” ~ The Drama of Madagascar, Sonia E. Howe, pp. 331–2. Methuen & Co. ltd. London, 1938.

See how open and honest the governors can be, when they don’t realise just what it is they are confessing? They could do that then because it seemed so clear that they were improving on slavery and forced labour, while bringing the benefits of civilisation to primitives as well. They conveniently forgot that by arranging the burden better they were just making it easier for them to pile on more, and that those “primitives” had been interacting with the outside world for generations, quietly and incrementally reforming and civilising themselves all along. The same applies to our situation, only the governors muddy the waters by not realising that they are doing it, since they think they are us and that it is we who are doing it to ourselves. If you want to be technically accurate, tax isn’t theft. But tax is still just a proxy for burdens, forced labour, taking of property without consent and so on — it is just more convenient than coming right out and doing it just like that. Fraud before force, but force after all. A technicality, not a justification.

March 10, 2008