“I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” – John Galt, excerpt from Atlas Shrugged (1957).
A progressive tax is when a tax rate increases as the taxable amount increases. To better understand this idea, we’ll look at the United States’ current progressive tax bracket for unmarried individuals’ income in 2017.
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While this progressive form of taxation is widely accepted throughout the United States, it fails to align with the Constitutional values that the Founding Fathers outlined.
For one, it discriminates against individuals via their income. Article 1, Section 8 clearly states, “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;”
Well, a progressive tax bracket most definitely isn’t uniform. It treats individuals differently based off of their income. Why is one person’s income valued as less valuable than another’s? Isn’t everyone supposed to be treated equally under law? The reference in Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution sure says so.
If that wasn’t proof enough of the Founders’ plan, then we need only look to the 14th Amendment. It was ratified in 1868, 49 years before the income tax was instituted. An excerpt from the 14th Amendment, Section 1 is as follows: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
This clause ensures that individuals would be treated the same as another individual within the same state, under the same laws. Cornell Law School accurately describes this requirement: “The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from denying any person within its territory the equal protection of the laws. This means that a state must treat an individual in the same manner as others in similar conditions and circumstances. The Federal Government must do the same, but this is required by the Fifth Amendment Due Process.”
It appears as if Teddy Roosevelt didn’t particularly agree that all persons should be treated equally under law, or at least when it comes to how much money they had. In 1910, Roosevelt made a speech in Kansas in support of a federal income tax. “The really big fortune, the swollen fortune by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes,” Roosevelt stated.
How appealing this federal income tax idea looked to voters, and how tempting this tax looked to Washington! This way it was free money taken from individuals who had “enough to go around.” Some groups, distinguished by wealth, would be treated one way, and another group a different way (reminds me of Jim Crow laws in the 1800s in relation to skin color). As Burton Folsom for the Foundation for Economic Education states, “… the nation needed a ‘graduated income tax’ to redistribute wealth from haves to the have-nots. The new tax slogan would be ‘ability to pay’.”
The Founders saw the threat of income tax and wrote about it in the Federalist Papers. They believed in consumption taxes on goods. This would allow for the individual’s contributions to be decided by the individual, not by the federal government. As Alexander Hamilton stated in Federalist 21, “The amount to be contributed by each citizen will in a degree be at this own option, and can be regulated by an attention to his resources.” “If duties are too high,” Hamilton continued, “they lessen the consumption; the collection is eluded; and the product in the treasury is not so great… This forms a complete barrier against any material oppression of the citizens by taxes of this class, and is itself a natural limitation of the power of imposing them.”
However, consumption taxes were and still are difficult to redistribute as progressives want. Additionally, many American citizens in the early 1900s were living in poverty, not buying luxury items that had the consumption tax attached to it. When the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified in 1913, allowing Congress “to lay and collect taxes on incomes from whatever source derived,” newly elected president Woodrow Wilson already had the voters sold. “Under the new tax law, exemptions were so high that few Americans earned enough to pay any tax. Rates started at 1 percent and rose slowly to a high of 7 percent on all income over $500,000,” Burton Folsom addresses.
After the new law, only 1% of families paid income tax, however all would reap the benefits. The politicians could continue to to tax the wealthy and redistribute it to the lower class, deeming anyone who objected as poor hating or wanting to give tax breaks to “already wealthy individuals.”
In final conclusion, it is my belief based from my view of morality, that it is discriminatory, immoral, and downright evil to require something from someone else simply because “they are able to give” or because “someone needs”. Taking more money in the form of taxes from one individual than another simply because they can afford it is in the same ballpark as making a black person drink from a different water fountain because “it’s all the same water”. Discrimination in any sense is evil, and it is disgusting to see it flaunted so openly and sometimes even as moral, to treat someone different solely because of a characteristic.
The Founders never considered a progressive type income tax for one simple reason: they believed that government existed solely to protect each human being’s natural rights. As Mr. Folsom experty said again, “[The Founders believed] Americans had a right to pursue life, liberty, and property, not an entitlement to it.” Immigrants 200 years ago and in present-day came to America for that reason alone; that it was each person’s individual responsibility to shape their own life how they wanted, and if they failed, they would try again. That was the American dream that was so fervently fought for.
The further and further the government pushes into the lives of the individual in the name of “the right thing to do”, the further and further the freedom-loving country that was so enticing to immigrants not long ago becomes.
“I started my life with a single absolute: that the world was mine to shape in the image of my highest values and never to be given up to a lesser standard, no matter how long or hard the struggle.” – John Galt, Atlas Shrugged (1957).