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The Power of Taxation – Federalist and anti-Federalist Arguments

If you’re going to hold government responsible for something, you can’t withhold the means of accomplishing that thing.   At least that was Hamilton’s argument.

 

This is one of those truths which, to a correct and unprejudiced mind, carries its own evidence along with it; and may be obscured, but cannot be made plainer by argument or reasoning. It rests upon axioms as simple as they are universal; the means ought to be proportioned to the end; the persons, from whose agency the attainment of any end is expected, ought to possess the means by which it is to be attained.  Alexander Hamilton – Federalist No. 23

Not so fast, says Brutus in anti-Federalist 33

This same writer insinuates, that the opponents to the plan promulgated by the convention, manifests a want of candor, in objecting to the extent of the powers proposed to be vested in this government; because he asserts, with an air of confidence, that the powers ought to be unlimited as to the object to which they extend; and that this position, if not self-evident, is at least clearly demonstrated by the foregoing mode of reasoning. But with submission to this author’s better judgment, I humbly conceive his reasoning will appear, upon examination, more specious than solid. The means, says the gentleman, ought to be proportioned to the end. Admit the proposition to be true, it is then necessary to inquire, what is the end of the government of the United States, in order to draw any just conclusions from it. Is this end simply to preserve the general government, and to provide for the common defense and general welfare of the union only? Certainly not. For beside this, the state governments are to be supported, and provision made for the managing such of their internal concerns as are allotted to them. It is admitted “that the circumstances of our country are such as to demand a compound instead of a simple, a confederate instead of a sole, government,” that the objects of each ought to be pointed out, and that each ought to possess ample authority to execute the powers committed to them. The government then, being complex in its nature, the end it has in view is so also; and it is as necessary that the state governments should possess the means to attain the end expected from them, as for the general government. Neither the general government nor the state governments ought to be vested with all the powers proper to be exercised for promoting the ends of government. The powers are divided between them-certain ends are to be attained by the one, and certain ends by the other; and these, taken together, include all the ends of good government. This being the case, the conclusion follows, that each should be furnished with the means, to attain the ends, to which they are designed.

But Hamilton resorts to this argument again in Federalist 30, in which he argues for federal power to impose direct taxes not limited to imposts on imports.

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.

Maybe Hamilton is addressing the wrong issue.  Maybe Brutus had it right,

Admit the proposition to be true, it is then necessary to inquire, what is the end of the government of the United States, in order to draw any just conclusions from it.

What is the realm within which the United States Government should operate?  Maybe Hamilton should have thought more carefully about what is contained in the next paragraph of Federalist 30:

To say that deficiencies may be provided for by requisitions upon the States, is on the one hand to acknowledge that this system cannot be depended upon, and on the other hand to depend upon it for every thing beyond a certain limit. Those who have carefully attended to its vices and deformities as they have been exhibited by experience or delineated in the course of these papers, must feel invincible repugnancy to trusting the national interests in any degree to its operation. Its inevitable tendency, whenever it is brought into activity, must be to enfeeble the Union, and sow the seeds of discord and contention between the federal head and its members, and between the members themselves. Can it be expected that the deficiencies would be better supplied in this mode than the total wants of the Union have heretofore been supplied in the same mode? It ought to be recollected that if less will be required from the States, they will have proportionably less means to answer the demand. If the opinions of those who contend for the distinction which has been mentioned were to be received as evidence of truth, one would be led to conclude that there was some known point in the economy of national affairs at which it would be safe to stop and to say: Thus far the ends of public happiness will be promoted by supplying the wants of government, and all beyond this is unworthy of our care or anxiety. How is it possible that a government half supplied and always necessitous, can fulfill the purposes of its institution, can provide for the security, advance the prosperity, or support the reputation of the commonwealth? How can it ever possess either energy or stability, dignity or credit, confidence at home or respectability abroad? How can its administration be any thing else than a succession of expedients temporizing, impotent, disgraceful? How will it be able to avoid a frequent sacrifice of its engagements to immediate necessity? How can it undertake or execute any liberal or enlarged plans of public good?

It seems as though Hamilton may not have considered that there is a point at which government should be limited and that things beyond this point are “unworthy of our care or anxiety.”  If the government wasn’t funded so extravagantly, how could “it undertake or execute any liberal or enlarged plans of public good?”  Maybe we don’t want it doing that.  It might be tempting to say that Hamilton could not have foreseen what government would become, but the anti-Federalists he was debating, were remarkably prescient.

We may say then that this clause [Article 1, Section 8] commits to the hands of the general legislature every conceivable source of revenue within the United States, Not only are these terms very comprehensive, and extend to a vast number of objects, but the power to lay and collect has great latitude; it will lead to the passing a vast number of laws, which may affect the personal rights of the citizens of the states, expose their property to fines and confiscation, and put their lives in jeopardy. It opens a door to the appointment of a swarm of revenue and excise collectors to prey upon the honest and industrious part of the community, [and] eat up their substance. . . .  Brutus – Anti-Federalist 32

And if Brutus overstated his case (and this is up for debate) on the emasculation of State governments by the federal government, he wasn’t far off.  Maybe his alternative should have been more carefully considered, with respect to taxation.

If the power of laying imposts will not be sufficient, some other specific mode of raising a revenue should have been assigned the general government; many may be suggested in which their power may be accurately defined and limited, and it would be much better to give them authority to lay and collect a duty on exports, not to exceed a certain rate per cent, than to have surrendered every kind of resource that the country has, to the complete abolition of the state governments, and which will introduce such an infinite number of laws and ordinances, fines and penalties, courts, and judges, collectors, and excisemen, that when a man can number them, he may enumerate the stars of Heaven.

Federal taxation power can hardly be categorized today as “accurately defined and limited.”  It is interesting to contemplate a federal government on such a strict diet.  But then again, we have Hamilton’s argument against a system partially funded by the States and partially through impost taxes.

Can it be expected that the deficiencies would be better supplied in this mode than the total wants of the Union have heretofore been supplied in the same mode?

After all, the chief problem with the Articles of Confederation was it’s inability to make the States do what they were obligated to do – fund the federal government.

Still, Brutus has some more interesting observations on what the future may hold, under the proposed Constitution.

. . . Besides, in the very clause which gives the power of levying duties and taxes, the purposes to which the money shall be appropriated are specified, viz., to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare.”‘ I would ask those, who reason thus, to define what ideas are included under the terms, to provide for the common defense and general welfare? Are these terms definite, and will they be understood in the same manner, and to apply to the same cases by everyone? No one will pretend they will. It will then be matter of opinion, what tends to the general welfare; and the Congress will be the only judges in the matter. To provide for the general welfare, is an abstract proposition, which mankind differ in the explanation of, as much as they do on any political or moral proposition that can be proposed; the most opposite measures may be pursued by different parties, and both may profess, that they have in view the general welfare and both sides may be honest in their professions, or both may have sinister views. Those who advocate this new constitution declare, they are influenced by a regard to the general welfare; those who oppose it, declare they are moved by the same principle; and I have no doubt but a number on both sides are honest in their professions; and yet nothing is more certain than this, that to adopt this constitution, and not to adopt it, cannot both of them be promotive of the general welfare.

It is absurd to say, that the power of Congress is limited by these general expressions “to provide for the common safety, and general welfare,” as it would be to say, that it would be limited, had the constitution said they should have power to lay taxes, etc. at will and pleasure. Were this authority given, it might be said, that under it the legislature could not do injustice, or pursue any measures, but such as were calculated to promote the public good, and happiness. For every man, rulers as well as others, are bound by the immutable laws of God and reason, always to will what is right. It is certainly right and fit, that the governors of every people should provide for the common defense and general welfare; every government, therefore, in the world, even the greatest despot, is limited in the exercise of his power. But however just this reasoning may be, it would be found, in practice, a most pitiful restriction. The government would always say, their measures were designed and calculated to promote the public good; and there being no judge between them and the people, the rulers themselves must, and would always, judge for themselves.

 

And so it would appear that the anti-Federalist was in agreement with James Madison’s admonition in Federalist 51 regarding men and angels. Madison said government is needed because men are not angels. The anti-Federalist warns that government is made up of human beings susceptible to the same foibles as the governed, a relevancy seemingly ignored by Hamilton.

1 comment

1 Michael E. Newton { 05.30.12 at 10:37 am }

In Hamilton’s day, federal tax revenues were less than two percent of GDP. They didn’t exceed 5% except in time of war (War of 1812, Civil War, World War I) until the 1930s. Since the 1940s, they’ve hovered between 15% and 20%.

It took 150 years for Brutus’s warning to come true. I certainly wouldn’t blame Hamilton or any other Founding Father for what future generation did. Especially when those future generations passed an income tax amendment that was not part of the original Constitution and as the people started ignoring the Constitution entirely (see FDR’s Four Freedoms).

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