What Is Caesar’s And What Is Mine?

     Pro-freedom journalist John Stossel has a plaintive piece up today about that special feature of this time of year. After all, it’s the season when a young man’s fancy turns to what his wife, fiancée, or Significant Other never stops thinking about: what’s in his wallet – and I don’t mean his Capital One card. (Well, maybe that too, but not exclusively.) For the Internal Revenue Service awaits his signed confession to the heinous crime of having earned a bit of money the year before, and it does not wait patiently.

     Stossel laments the incomprehensible complexity of the income tax code. Yet he also notes that it’s that way on purpose. When the law is so complex that no one can possibly understand it – and even tax experts will tell you that’s the case – the Rule of Law ceases to apply. Instead we have the Rule of Status. The status that wields the rule is, of course, that of being an IRS auditor.

     Of course, a citizen accused of some offense against the tax laws can always stand on his right to a trial, but…guess what? Those trials are conducted in tax courts, where the presumption of innocence does not apply and the incomprehensibility of the law has repeatedly been ruled inadmissible. “Void for vagueness,” a status that would invalidate any other law, seems not to apply to the income tax code.

     Time was, I endured the 1040 ritual alone every year. It was almost enough to move me to unpack the Barrett M82A1 and the emergency package of Double-Stuf® Oreos and look for a well-situated clock tower. Then I married an accountant. But merely having fobbed off the preparing of the return has not relieved the agony of the tax itself. Nothing seems to work against that.

     The problem is stiff, as are so many other things at my age. (Sadly, not the right ones, but that’s a subject for another time.) It cannot be solved legislatively. Oh, we’ll get a reduction in the tax rates every now and then, but such minor reliefs are transient and not to be relied upon long-term. The dynamic of power implies that taxation, when not constrained by the armed force of the taxed, will increase over time until it touches everything men can do or own.

     Lysander Spooner understood this:

     All political power, as it is called, rests practically upon this matter of money. Any number of scoundrels, having money enough to start with, can establish themselves as a “government;” because, with money, they can hire soldiers, and with soldiers extort more money; and also compel general obedience to their will. It is with government, as Cæsar said it was in war, that money and soldiers mutually supported each other; that with money he could hire soldiers, and with soldiers extort money. So these villains, who call themselves governments, well understand that their power rests primarily upon money. With money they can hire soldiers, and with soldiers extort money. And, when their authority is denied, the first use they always make of money, is to hire soldiers to kill or subdue all who refuse them more money.

     No amount of lipstick can make this anything but a pig: a pig with an infinite, eternally unassuageable hunger for ever more revenue and power.


     No doubt you recognized the title of this piece as a quote from the Gospels. In saying what He said, Jesus appears to legitimize taxation. Yet it is not so. What, Gentle Reader, do you have that’s Caesar’s? What makes it properly his rather than yours?

     (Don’t any of you dare to say “need” or “the public good.” I’m armed and have already had a very bad day.)

     The American Revolution was a pro-property rights revolution triggered by taxes the colonists believed were unjust. Though it succeeded in making the colonies independent states, it didn’t satisfy the original aim of casting off the tax burden:

     Politics, as hopeful men practice it in the world, consists mainly of the delusion that a change in form is a change in substance. The American colonists, when they got rid of the Potsdam tyrant, believed fondly that they were getting rid of oppressive taxes forever and setting up complete liberty. They found almost instantly that taxes were higher than ever, and before many years they were writhing under the Alien and Sedition Acts. – H. L. Mencken

     Oops. Mind you, those taxes were originally imposed by state and local governments rather than a federal government. The Constitution appeared to offer a limiting principle that would limit federal exactions to a tolerable level:

     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; [Article I, Section 8]

     An unprincipled jurist, Supreme Court Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, ruled that the taxing power is unlimited by any Constitutional provision. Taxes need not be levied strictly “to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States,” but for any reason Washington might want money. Which has brought us to where we are today, when politicians can say to one another, “They’ve got it. We want it. Let’s take it,” and send forth their myrmidons to collect.

     Were taxes to be levied exclusively for the purposes enumerated in Article I Section 8, they might prove bearable. Of course, there’s an assumption buried in there: i.e., that “our representatives” wouldn’t “go overboard” in funding those enumerated purposes. But such an assumption stands behind the premise of constitutionalism itself. Either we make it and deal with the consequences, or no government however defined can be limited in any way.

     Today the clause after the “or” looks like the only defensible conclusion.


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    • Chris on February 28, 2024 at 8:40 AM

    Oh you struck a nerve with me with this story Francis. An uncle of mine died in ‘83, leaving, leaving behind some money and a few assets and a mentally-impaired wife who was unable to care for herself.

    After all of the tax wrangling was over with, she was forced to sell almost all of my uncles assets to square the tax bill, including a piece of property – the 2nd oldest building in the town of Fishkill –  that had been in the family for 147 years. Even after she was forced to sell almost everything her and her husband had worked to build over the course of their 52 years of marriage (she was hit by a truck in the 60’s and as a result was unable to have children.) my father – who had been made the executor of her estate – worried aloud to me one afternoon that between paying off New York State and the IRS, he worried how long the funds to pay for our aunts live-in nurse would last and whether or not she would outlive them.
    She joined her husband in the hereafter in ‘90 and according to my father, had she lived another three years, the money would have been gone. I can recall my father sitting at our kitchen table for many an hour fretting and cursing aloud over how he was going to make this work. It took it’s toll on him and he eventually developed a bad ulcer. It was treated, but again it took it’s toll on him.

  1. Purely as an aside observation.

    Given the wont of Calvin Coolidge who appointed Harlan Fiske Stone to SCOTUS it’s likely this jurist showed little signs in 1925 of writing such a ruling. As the ruling came only a few years before his death in 1946, that’s a large span of time to be in power.

    We’ve pondered this danger before. On the purely altruistic side, there’s something about being in power and being in a position to leave a lasting influence long after you’re gone may have contributed to this, no matter the shortsightedness.

    But we are talking about a human: So he was available to succumb to flattery, coercion, extortion, blackmail or bribery and in the darker realm, arrogance, resentment, insanity or a long hidden psychopathy. Those are always a danger consequent to granting anyone essentially tenure for life.

    This possibility seems to have been downgraded a bit too much by the proponents in the Federalist Papers who ultimately won the day entirely.

    • Steve on February 28, 2024 at 11:22 AM

    Thomas Jefferson offered James Madison the same observation of Clause 1 — that it allowed anything and everything any scoundrel could make the case for as “general Welfare”, which was no obstacle at all. He further pointed out that the weakening of the Article’s “expressly delegated” powers would result in men who would use that construction to usurp powers that were supposed to remain vested in the States or the People.

    Even Hamilton (Federalist #84, IIRC) pointed out that a bill of rights was dangerous because the very construction of a bill of rights was supposed to be an exception to the delegated powers, which men inclined to usurp would use to assume powers not in Section 8.

    Two men of vastly different views on the Federal Government cautioned Madison about the monster his baby would become, to no avail. And we are living the consequences.

    • NITZAKHON on March 1, 2024 at 10:29 AM

    Folded this into today’s upcoming meme post.  Thanks!  (Another one you did too.)

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