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Saturday, July 4, 2009

Taxes and the Declaration of Independence

Declaration_1 From the TaxProf Blog vault:  a July 4th post by Neil Buchanan (George Washington) during a guest blogging stint here:

I thought I would take another look at our oft-mentioned and seldom-read Declaration of Independence to see what it has to say about taxes and other issues of import. Herewith, a quick (and admittedly incomplete) summary of the contents:

Obviously, the most important issue addressed in the Declaration was the ongoing violence in the colonies. Among its more memorable descriptions of conditions at the time, the Declaration reminded the world that King George III "has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people." The founding fathers were understandably focused primarily on matters of life and death.

Beyond those immediate concerns, though, the bulk of the Declaration expresses, in essence, a thirst for politics. That is, the major non-war-related complaint is that there is no locally-elected legislature passing laws for the colonies. Our founders were willing to lay their lives on the line, in other words, to create legislatures.

For those of us who are law professors and lawyers, it is interesting that the Declaration also seems to express (or at least imply) a desire for lawsuits and defense lawyers. The king "has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing Judiciary powers" and "depriv[ed] us, in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury." (Current readers are likely to split into two camps in their reactions to those statements, with some saying "If they only knew what they were getting us into," and others saying, "Yes, lawyers are an essential ingredient of a stable nation.")

The Declaration also notes that the king had prevented colonists from trading with foreign nations, which was an especially sore point for our resource-rich and young nation. (There is also, I should say, a rarely-quoted--and inflammatory--comment about the American Indians, reminding us that even the Founding Fathers made controversial statements.)

Finally, though, what about taxes? Exactly one statement appears on the subject: The king had assented to Parliament's laws that "impos[e] Taxes on us without our Consent." That's it. For some reason, I always thought that taxes played a bigger part in the Declaration. All it says, though, is that taxes are unacceptable if we do not impose them on ourselves.

The Declaration of Independence, in addition to calling for peace in our country, called for four basic things: the right to pass our own laws, to operate our own courts of law, to trade with other nations, and to create our own tax system. Simple, elegant, complete. No wonder we still read it.

Chris Bergin, President and Publisher of Tax Analysts, provides his perspective on July 4th:

Long ago I got tired of the crap that this country was born out of a tax revolt.

For me, this country was born out of the belief that human beings should be free. We haven't always gotten it right. But for more than 200 years, we keep getting better at it. And whether I agree with him on every issue or not, each time I look at our President, I take great pride in him and great pride in this country.

In the United States of America, taxes are what citizens pay for a civilized society. This means that each and every one of us has a say in how much tax we pay and where the revenue from what we pay should go. In these tough times, knowledge is the greatest currency, especially when it comes to our money.

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Comments

That's nice, but the country was still born out of a tax revolt, there are always long- and short-term causes and narratives always change. That's why they call it "history" and not science. Nice post.

Posted by: mike livingston | Jul 4, 2009 3:48:15 PM