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Jefferson on Redistribution

April 10, 2006

What drives domestic politics today is government income redistribution. It forms the core of virtually every fiscal battle, since every policy that gives some what they don't pay for must be funded from others' pockets.

That gets highlighted during income tax season. The lowest 40% of earners now pay negative income taxes as a group (largely due to the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit). That forces higher earners to shoulder the entire income tax burden.

Unfortunately, the underlying premise behind these disproportionate burdens--that it is an appropriate federal government role to take from some to give to others of its choosing--is a world apart from the founding principles of this country. No one ever said it better than Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the most prolific founding father on the topic of our rights and liberty, whose April 13 birthday many Americans now "celebrate" by puzzling over their tax forms.

"The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents."

"The true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen in his person and property and in their management."

"...rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our own will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law,' because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual."

"...we have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious. I believe it might be much simplified to the relief of those who maintain it."

"...a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government..."

"If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them, they must become happy."

"The policy of the American government is to leave their citizens free, neither restraining nor aiding them in their pursuits."

"Our wish is that...[there may be] maintained that state of property, equal or unequal, which results to every man from his own industry or that of this fathers."

"To take from one because it is thought that his own industry and that of his father's has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association--the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it."

Thomas Jefferson leaves no doubt that the United States was not established to forcibly take from some for others, as that would violate both citizens' liberty and property. Our Constitution reflects that same view, containing not a single word authorizing federal income redistribution, but several clauses, which, if taken seriously, rule it out. The General Welfare clause is one example. When Washington takes your money against your will for others, you are harmed. When your welfare is reduced, how can the general welfare-which must apply to you as well-be advanced?

April tax time commentary usually focuses on the cost and inconvenience. It ignores that many are exempted from those costs, forcing the tab for their government services onto others. But Thomas Jefferson made clear that a policy of imposing such disproportionate burdens is inconsistent with core American principles. Neither he, nor our other founders, would say that the unequal burdens imposed by the tax code, so that some, via the federal government, can acquire benefits they did not earn, reflects our founding ideals or our founding documents.

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