It’s election time and Republicans are making their quadrennial call for income-tax cuts. Democrats are opposing them because the federal government needs the money to shore up Medicare and Social Security. The entire debate obscures an uncomfortable truth — that in 1913, the 16th Amendment to the Constitution effectively nationalized the income of every American.
Although most Americans honestly believe that the income they earn in their jobs and investments belongs to them, nothing could be further from the truth. Because by having the power to determine how much money people are permitted to keep, the federal government, not the people, has become the ultimate owner of everyone’s income.
People are born with certain talents and abilities that they use to sustain their life through labor. For example, suppose a farmer plants crops on land he has acquired. When the crops mature, he sells the produce to others in return for money that he then uses to purchase clothing and other essentials. Although society benefits from the farmer’s production of food, it is self-evident that the personal talents and abilities that the farmer uses to bring a crop to maturity are his and do not belong to “society.” That is, other people have no “right” to force the farmer to devote his life and energies to them. The same holds true with respect to the crops — they belong to the farmer, not society, because they are the fruits of the farmer’s own talents and abilities.
Suppose, however, that the government passes a law that decrees, “All farmers are now required to devote their efforts full-time to government service. All crops are now owned by the government, but farmers and their families will be provided their housing, food, medical care, and other necessities of life.”
Most people would agree that this would constitute the very essence of slavery. After all, isn’t that the relationship that plantation owners in the Old South had with their black farmhands?
The enslavement of people in a representative democracy such as the United States has required much more sophistication because it has necessitated the consent and approval of the very people who are being enslaved. Nevertheless, by empowering their own government officials to control how much income they will be permitted to keep, the plight of the American people is no different in principle from that of other slaves in history.
In essence, the federal government has decreed to the American people: “You are free to work for whomever you want and to make as much money as you can. However, you and your employer are required on pain of fine and imprisonment to send us a certain percentage of the fruits of your earnings. We will periodically advise you of the exact amount of the percentage.”
If the percentage were to be set at 100, every American would easily be able to recognize his enslavement. He would be devoting all of his life’s energies to serving people he had been forced to serve rather than serving others voluntarily in the marketplace in the process of serving himself. To put it another way, if slaves in the Old South had had the right to elect their taskmaster (who undoubtedly would have advocated “reform” during election time), they might have been considered “free” in a political sense but certainly not in an economic one.
What do Americans receive in return for their enslavement? The same thing that slaves throughout history have received — a promise that their masters will take care of them (with the money that has been taken from them). In fact, government officials now use the promise of government-guaranteed care as the principal justification for the perpetual existence of the income tax and the IRS.
What we need in this country is not the customary quadrennial discussion over tax cuts and tax reform. What we really need is a national debate over such fundamental issues as the meaning of human liberty and the role of government in a free society.