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Federalist No. 31

This essay is the second in a series on the controversial issue of taxation. Hamilton continues his arguments for unlimited federal power to tax and tries to address the objections of those who fear usurpation and displacement of the State governments.


Concerning the General Power of Taxation (continued)

 

To the People of the State of New York:

 

IN DISQUISITIONS of every kind, there are certain primary truths, or first principles, upon which all subsequent reasonings must depend. These contain an internal evidence which, antecedent to all reflection or combination, commands the assent of the mind. Where it produces not this effect, it must proceed either from some defect or disorder in the organs of perception, or from the influence of some strong interest, or passion, or prejudice. Of this nature are the maxims in geometry, that “the whole is greater than its part; things equal to the same are equal to one another; two straight lines cannot enclose a space; and all right angles are equal to each other.” Of the same nature are these other maxims in ethics and politics, that there cannot be an effect without a cause; that the means ought to be proportioned to the end; that every power ought to be commensurate with its object; that there ought to be no limitation of a power destined to effect a purpose which is itself incapable of limitation. And there are other truths in the two latter sciences which, if they cannot pretend to rank in the class of axioms, are yet such direct inferences from them, and so obvious in themselves, and so agreeable to the natural and unsophisticated dictates of common-sense, that they challenge the assent of a sound and unbiased mind, with a degree of force and conviction almost equally irresistible.

In any expository essay,  you have to start somewhere.  There are certain primary truths, or first principles, upon which all subsequent reasoning must depend.  These are obvious truths which are commonly accepted prior to any subsequent combination or use in making one’s case. When such things are not accepted, the only possible reasons for this are, either misunderstanding or strong self-interest which allows passion or prejudice to deny them.  For instance, in geometry it is a given that  “the whole is greater than its part; things equal to the same are equal to one another; two straight lines cannot enclose a space; and all right angles are equal to each other.”   Likewise in politics and ethics, there cannot be an effect without a cause, and the power granted to accomplish an end must be proportionate to that end.  A corollary to this is that a goal unbounded in its magnitude demands unlimited power to achieve it.  There are other truths in the sciences of politics and ethics, which if not quite axioms, are nearly so, given that they are inferences made from axioms.  These things are so obvious that they fall under the category of common sense.  Only someone who is unbalanced or biased could possibly disagree with them.

The objects of geometrical inquiry are so entirely abstracted from those pursuits which stir up and put in motion the unruly passions of the human heart, that mankind, without difficulty, adopt not only the more simple theorems of the science, but even those abstruse paradoxes which, however they may appear susceptible of demonstration, are at variance with the natural conceptions which the mind, without the aid of philosophy, would be led to entertain upon the subject. The INFINITE DIVISIBILITY of matter, or, in other words, the INFINITE divisibility of a FINITE thing, extending even to the minutest atom, is a point agreed among geometricians, though not less incomprehensible to common-sense than any of those mysteries in religion, against which the batteries of infidelity have been so industriously leveled.

The tenets of geometry are so far removed from the passionate pursuits of the human heart that, no matter how difficult to grasp, they are readily accepted .  No matter how difficult they may be to demonstrate without the aid of philosophy, they are still adopted without complaint.  Consider the infinite divisibility of matter, or to put it another way, the fact that a finite object may be divided in two an infinite number of times, down to the very atom.  And yet anyone who studies geometry will find no problem accepting this fact, though it be as incomprehensible to common-sense as any religious mystery against which non-believers level their attacks.

But in the sciences of morals and politics, men are found far less tractable. To a certain degree, it is right and useful that this should be the case. Caution and investigation are a necessary armor against error and imposition. But this untractableness may be carried too far, and may degenerate into obstinacy, perverseness, or disingenuity. Though it cannot be pretended that the principles of moral and political knowledge have, in general, the same degree of certainty with those of the mathematics, yet they have much better claims in this respect than, to judge from the conduct of men in particular situations, we should be disposed to allow them. The obscurity is much oftener in the passions and prejudices of the reasoner than in the subject. Men, upon too many occasions, do not give their own understandings fair play; but, yielding to some untoward bias, they entangle themselves in words and confound themselves in subtleties.

But when it comes to the science of morals and politics, men are far less amenable to being convinced.  To a certain extent, this is as it should be.  Caution and investigation are a good defense against error and deception.  But this stubbornness may be carried too far, and may morph into mere obstinance, perverseness, and dishonesty.  There is no doubt that the principles of moral and political knowledge don’t approach the same degree of certainty as mathematical theorems.  But, they don’t get the credit they deserve either, when you look at the conduct of men in particular situations.  The obscurity prevalent in discussions of morals and politics  is more often the result of the passions and prejudice of the person arguing, than any inherent flaw.  It is often the case that people yield to their own biases and confound themselves in unnecessary subtleties, rather than just argue common sense.

How else could it happen (if we admit the objectors to be sincere in their opposition), that positions so clear as those which manifest the necessity of a general power of taxation in the government of the Union, should have to encounter any adversaries among men of discernment? Though these positions have been elsewhere fully stated, they will perhaps not be improperly recapitulated in this place, as introductory to an examination of what may have been offered by way of objection to them. They are in substance as follows:

If we are willing to concede the sincerity of our opponents, there is no other explanation for the objections leveled against the general power of taxation in the government of the Union.  They are, after all, men of discernment.  Although we have made these arguments before, it seems that it is necessary to restate them here.  In introducing this topic, we will begin by summarizing them as follows:

A government ought to contain in itself every power requisite to the full accomplishment of the objects committed to its care, and to the complete execution of the trusts for which it is responsible, free from every other control but a regard to the public good and to the sense of the people.

  • A government should have all the power necessary to accomplish those things it is tasked to do.  It should be free from any limitation to do those things necessary for the public good.

As the duties of superintending the national defense and of securing the public peace against foreign or domestic violence involve a provision for casualties and dangers to which no possible limits can be assigned, the power of making that provision ought to know no other bounds than the exigencies of the nation and the resources of the community.

  • Since defending the nation and securing the public peace against foreign and domestic violence may involve unknown and unlimited dangers and difficulties, the power of protecting the nation should likewise be unlimited.  The government needs full access to all of the resources of the community.

As revenue is the essential engine by which the means of answering the national exigencies must be procured, the power of procuring that article in its full extent must necessarily be comprehended in that of providing for those exigencies.

  • Since revenue is the principle element in responding to any national emergency, the power of procuring it has to be assumed as a necessary component of those powers granted for that purpose.

As theory and practice conspire to prove that the power of procuring revenue is unavailing when exercised over the States in their collective capacities, the federal government must of necessity be invested with an unqualified power of taxation in the ordinary modes.

  • We’ve seen in both theory and practice, that taxing the States doesn’t work.  The federal government must have the unqualified power to tax the people in the ordinary way.

Did not experience evince the contrary, it would be natural to conclude that the propriety of a general power of taxation in the national government might safely be permitted to rest on the evidence of these propositions, unassisted by any additional arguments or illustrations. But we find, in fact, that the antagonists of the proposed Constitution, so far from acquiescing in their justness or truth, seem to make their principal and most zealous effort against this part of the plan. It may therefore be satisfactory to analyze the arguments with which they combat it.

If we had not already experienced the capacity of our opponents to argue against these powers, we might be tempted to let our arguments rest on the previous principles.  Instead, we have seen that the antagonists of the proposed Constitution, rather than recognizing the truth of their assertion, continue to raise zealous objections to combat it.  And so, it behooves us to analyze their arguments.

Those of them which have been most labored with that view, seem in substance to amount to this: “It is not true, because the exigencies of the Union may not be susceptible of limitation, that its power of laying taxes ought to be unconfined. Revenue is as requisite to the purposes of the local administrations as to those of the Union; and the former are at least of equal importance with the latter to the happiness of the people. It is, therefore, as necessary that the State governments should be able to command the means of supplying their wants, as that the national government should possess the like faculty in respect to the wants of the Union. But an indefinite power of taxation in the latter might, and probably would in time, deprive the former of the means of providing for their own necessities; and would subject them entirely to the mercy of the national legislature. As the laws of the Union are to become the supreme law of the land, as it is to have power to pass all laws that may be NECESSARY for carrying into execution the authorities with which it is proposed to vest it, the national government might at any time abolish the taxes imposed for State objects upon the pretense of an interference with its own. It might allege a necessity of doing this in order to give efficacy to the national revenues. And thus all the resources of taxation might by degrees become the subjects of federal monopoly, to the entire exclusion and destruction of the State governments.”

The most strenuous opponents make the following argument: “Just because the emergencies that the union may face cannot be defined or limited in scope, doesn’t mean that the Union’s power of levying taxes should be likewise unconstrained.  Revenue is at least as important to local governments as it is to the government of the Union.   Furthermore, local government is at least as significant to the happiness of the people as is the federal government.  Therefore, the State governments should be able to raise the funds they need, just as the federal government should be able to gather its revenues.   But allowing unlimited an undefined taxation power to the federal government would probably, over the course of time, deprive the local governments of their ability to raise funds, and ultimately subject them to the whims of the national legislature.  Remembering that the laws of the Union are to be the supreme law of the land, and that consequently it is to have the power to pass all laws which might be necessary to fulfill its obligations, it is not hard to see that the national government might simply decide to abolish the taxes imposed by the States if it deemed them in too much competition.  It might claim that it had to do this in order to be able raise sufficient revenue for itself.  As a result, all taxation might be come subject to federal monopoly and end in the destruction of the State governments..”

This mode of reasoning appears sometimes to turn upon the supposition of usurpation in the national government; at other times it seems to be designed only as a deduction from the constitutional operation of its intended powers. It is only in the latter light that it can be admitted to have any pretensions to fairness. The moment we launch into conjectures about the usurpations of the federal government, we get into an unfathomable abyss, and fairly put ourselves out of the reach of all reasoning. Imagination may range at pleasure till it gets bewildered amidst the labyrinths of an enchanted castle, and knows not on which side to turn to extricate itself from the perplexities into which it has so rashly adventured. Whatever may be the limits or modifications of the powers of the Union, it is easy to imagine an endless train of possible dangers; and by indulging an excess of jealousy and timidity, we may bring ourselves to a state of absolute scepticism and irresolution. I repeat here what I have observed in substance in another place, that all observations founded upon the danger of usurpation ought to be referred to the composition and structure of the government, not to the nature or extent of its powers. The State governments, by their original constitutions, are invested with complete sovereignty. In what does our security consist against usurpation from that quarter? Doubtless in the manner of their formation, and in a due dependence of those who are to administer them upon the people. If the proposed construction of the federal government be found, upon an impartial examination of it, to be such as to afford, to a proper extent, the same species of security, all apprehensions on the score of usurpation ought to be discarded.

This line of reasoning seems to follow one of two courses:  Either it is offered to offset the likelihood of usurpation by the national government, or merely as a way to limit the powers granted to carry out the operation of the national government.  It is only this latter course that has any pretense toward logic.  The minute you begin indulging in conspiracy theories about the potential tyranny of the federal government, you lose all claims to being taken seriously.    Such claims are the products of wild imaginations.  No matter what form the federal government takes and no matter what restrictions are placed upon it, one can always come up with dangerous scenarios.  Worrying about every possible risk leads one to become so skeptical and cynical that one is afraid to do anything.   As I’ve outlined in detail elsewhere, concerns about the abuse of power should be focused on the composition and structure of the government, rather than on the nature and extent of its powers.  After all, the State government constitutions are invested with complete sovereignty.  What protects us from usurpation by them?  Our protection comes from how they are constructed and on the reliance of those elected upon the people.  If, upon examining the proposed structure of the federal government, it is found to be constructed along similar lines, then it should offer similar protections.   From this standpoint we can quit worrying about usurpation by the federal government.

It should not be forgotten that a disposition in the State governments to encroach upon the rights of the Union is quite as probable as a disposition in the Union to encroach upon the rights of the State governments. What side would be likely to prevail in such a conflict, must depend on the means which the contending parties could employ toward insuring success. As in republics strength is always on the side of the people, and as there are weighty reasons to induce a belief that the State governments will commonly possess most influence over them, the natural conclusion is that such contests will be most apt to end to the disadvantage of the Union; and that there is greater probability of encroachments by the members upon the federal head, than by the federal head upon the members. But it is evident that all conjectures of this kind must be extremely vague and fallible: and that it is by far the safest course to lay them altogether aside, and to confine our attention wholly to the nature and extent of the powers as they are delineated in the Constitution. Every thing beyond this must be left to the prudence and firmness of the people; who, as they will hold the scales in their own hands, it is to be hoped, will always take care to preserve the constitutional equilibrium between the general and the State governments. Upon this ground, which is evidently the true one, it will not be difficult to obviate the objections which have been made to an indefinite power of taxation in the United States.

We should not forget that the States are every bit as likely to encroach on the power of the federal government as is the federal government upon the States.  And who would prevail in such a conflict?  This would depend entirely on the means brought to bear on either side.  Considering the fact that republics derive their strength from the people, there is good reason to believe that the States would possess an advantage in this, because they hold greater influence over the people.  The obvious conclusion is that the States would therefore, prevail in any such contest. This makes it more likely that the States will encroach upon the federal government than vice versa.  But such hypotheses are hard to prove by their vague nature.  It is better to set them aside and concentrate instead on the nature and extent of the powers delineated in the proposed constitution.  Anything else ought to be left to the prudence of the people.  They will preserve the balance between the powers of the State governments and the federal government.  Upon this basis, it is hard to argue against the indefinite power of taxation in the United States.

PUBLIUS


8 comments

1 Richard M. Salsman { 06.07.12 at 6:18 am }

This is typical of the misrepresentations of Hamilton as an advocate of big and oppressive government. He was no such thing, and no, he also did NOT, as you claim, advocate an “unlimited federal power to tax,” not only because he defended property rights, but because he defended the original Constituion, which, if you know, permitted no such “unlimited power” to tax, including no power to impose an unlimited federal income tax, which is why the Supreme Court rejected populist attempts to pass such a tax in the 1890s, and why the Constitution itself had to be amended, in 1913, to allow for one. Hamilton would have supported the Court’s rejections of the federal income tax in the 1890s and would have opposed the 1913 amendment, which was instigated by the Jeffersonian “progressives.”

[Reply]

Martin Reply:

Richard,

Thanks for taking the time to comment.

This is not meant to be an editorial appraisal of Hamilton, but merely an attempt to paraphrase his words in contemporary English. I am open for suggestions if you think I have miscast anything he said in this, or any of the other 30-some-odd Federalists I have parsed on this site.

Please note, the italicized words are Hamilton’s own, the other are my attempt to paraphrase, paragraph by paragraph.

I’m interested to know where you believe I have erred. My goal is simply to understand what I’m reading and the way I can make sure I do, is to challenge myself to put it in contemporary English.

If you think the brief summary at the top is an inaccurate depiction of what this Federalist is about, please suggest an alternate.

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Richard M. Salsman Reply:

Martin – I count thrice that you (alone) refer to “unlimited” taxing power, but not once do you cite Hamilton using the same word or even implying the same thing. – Richard

[Reply]

Martin Reply:

Hmm. Let’s look at these and see if we can’t come up with something better.

First let’s settle on a definition of the term unlimited, can we agree on the following?

unlimited: not limited; unrestricted; unconfined: unlimited trade. 2. boundless; infinite;

Hamilton said that there ought to be no limitation of a power destined to effect a purpose which is itself incapable of limitation.

I paraphrased:
a goal unbounded in its magnitude demands unlimited power to achieve it.

I honestly can’t see any room for quibble on this one, I think “no limitation” is pretty much the same thing as “unlimited.”

In the next one, Hamilton says:
As the duties of superintending the national defense and of securing the public peace against foreign or domestic violence involve a provision for casualties and dangers to which no possible limits can be assigned, the power of making that provision ought to know no other bounds than the exigencies of the nation and the resources of the community.

I paraphrase:
Since defending the nation and securing the public peace against foreign and domestic violence may involve unknown and unlimited dangers and difficulties, the power of protecting the nation should likewise be unlimited. The government needs full access to all of the resources of the community.

In this one, I use “unlimited” twice. In the first case it was in reference to the inability to forecast the magnitude of the dangers entailed by foreign and domestic violence. We could probably pick another word. Maybe something like: “It’s impossible to forecast the magnitude of the dangers inherent in foreign or domestic violence.” What he is saying is that you can’t arbitrarily limit the scope of the risk.

In the next place, I use “unlimited” for no other bounds other than what the community can provide and the needs require. So, you may be right here. Hamilton does ascribe a limit of sorts which is apparently what the community will bear. But if you take all there is, is that not without limit in a practical sense?

In the next one, I think you may have a point. Hamilton says:

But an indefinite power of taxation in the latter might, and probably would in time, deprive the former of the means of providing for their own necessities; and would subject them entirely to the mercy of the national legislature.

I paraphrased:

But allowing unlimited taxation power to the federal government would probably, over the course of time, deprive the local governments of their ability to raise funds, and ultimately subject them to the whims of the national legislature.

In this paragraph Hamilton is reciting the opposing argument to make his case. “Undefined” may be arguably different than unlimited. I will revert back to Hamilton’s word choice. However, keep in mind, in both this Federalist and 30, Hamilton is arguing that you cannot place limits on the power needed to accomplish a thing that itself cannot be limited.

Thanks for your attention to detail. Do you still disagree on the summary?

Michael E. Newton Reply:

Hamilton believed there should be no constitutional limit to taxes. In that respect, it is unlimited. However, he advocated consumption taxes in Federalist No. 21 because “They prescribe their own limit; which cannot be exceeded without defeating the end proposed, that is, an extension of the revenue.” In that respect, he believed in limited taxes.

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2 Richard M. Salsman { 06.07.12 at 10:39 am }

Martin –

I believe you are dropping a crucial context, and thus making Hamilton say something he neither believes nor contends. When he writes that “every power ought to be commensurate with its object; that there ought to be no limitation of a power destined to effect a purpose which is itself incapable of limitation,” he is explaining that the means should fully, without limit, serve the end – in this case the end (or purpose) of the proposed federal government. For Hamilton (and most other Founders) the sole end or purpose of government is to preserve, protect and defend individual rights (to life, liberty and property). Hamilton here is simply saying there must be no limit to how government accomplishes that sole purpose, which is the opposite of saying (as you suggest he is saying) that government should, without limit, do anything it wishes to do, including tax people excessively and in many other ways violate their rights. Hamilton was answering the anti-federalists and various other Jeffersonian opponents of adopting the Constitution who, in his view, wished to deprive government of the necessary and proper powers needed to protect rights, and therefore wished to leave rights exposed to violation. You improperly portray Hamilton as a man eager to violate rights, thus eager to form a government of unlimited power to violate rights. Not so. Hamilton and the Federalists knew rights were being violated – by the states against each other, and by Jeffersonian anti-federalists against black slaves – because no federal government existed with powers sufficient to prohibit such violations.

By the way, I like your web-site – and recommend it heartily; it’s worth commenting on precisely because it’s so worthy a site.

Best,

Richard

[Reply]

Martin Reply:

Richard, first, thank you for your kind words and for taking the time to thoughtfully respond.

Please do suggest a phrasing which does not imply something that Hamilton did not intend, in your view. If it makes sense, I’m happy to incorporate.

I well understand that we cannot divorce the Founders from the time in which they lived and the context in which they said and did the things they did. I took the time to examine the anti-Federalist essays written contemporaneous to Hamilton’s Federalists, so I understand your point.

However, not only do we have to be careful with taking Hamilton and other Founders out of context, we also need to be careful about restructuring what they actually said to fit our perceptions.

In a recent interview with Greg Weiner, author of Madison’s Metronome, he said something that sticks with me about intent.

There are different strands of original intent. For original intent, what Madison would say is that the first place you look is to the words. You only try to look at historical intent if the words are not clear. The problem is, although I would certainly agree with you, that although it is not what they had in mind, it is what they said.

For my paraphrases, I’m after what they said. Sometimes I do follow up commentary on what I think it means.

My purpose in paraphrasing these is two-fold.

  1. By forcing myself to put the Federalist into modern English, I make sure I actually understand what is being said. I’m not trying to put a construction on it.
  2. I hope to stimulate conversations like this one and to genuinely arrive at the best understanding as well as paraphrase to make these more accessible.

    So, I ask you again? How would you change it?

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3 Marcia { 06.07.12 at 1:12 pm }

I understand that the broad context is which Hamilton writes is as you say. However, the specific context of Federalists 30 and 31 is whether the government should be limited in the resources it needs to fulfill its obligations. In 30, for example, he uses the term unconfined:
“The more intelligent adversaries of the new Constitution admit the force of this reasoning; but they qualify their admission by a distinction between what they call internal and external taxation. The former they would reserve to the State governments; the latter, which they explain into commercial imposts, or rather duties on imported articles, they declare themselves willing to concede to the federal head. This distinction, however, would violate the maxim of good sense and sound policy, which dictates that every POWER ought to be in proportion to its OBJECT; and would still leave the general government in a kind of tutelage to the State governments, inconsistent with every idea of vigor or efficiency. Who can pretend that commercial imposts are, or would be, alone equal to the present and future exigencies of the Union? Taking into the account the existing debt, foreign and domestic, upon any plan of extinguishment which a man moderately impressed with the importance of public justice and public credit could approve, in addition to the establishments which all parties will acknowledge to be necessary, we could not reasonably flatter ourselves, that this resource alone, upon the most improved scale, would even suffice for its present necessities. Its future necessities admit not of calculation or limitation; and upon the principle, more than once adverted to, the power of making provision for them as they arise ought to be equally unconfined. I believe it may be regarded as a position warranted by the history of mankind, that, in the usual progress of things, the necessities of a nation, in every stage of its existence, will be found at least equal to its resources.”
These two Federalists, it seems to me, are quite clear in their meaning.

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