April 3, 2012
To My Fellow Citizens:
Throughout history, most political regimes have been what professional categorizers of such things call “extractive.” We have no objection to the term. It is accurate enough and even vivid. Extractive regimes—that is, most regimes in most places in most times—protect the political and economic power of the ruling class by taking wealth from others. In the realm of international affairs, states and empires conquered others and extracted wealth from the defeated populations. Domestically, rulers imposed taxes on their subjects in order to fund the rulers’ enterprises, especially foreign wars.
On the surface, the extraction of wealth from the subjects by taxing them would seem to be limited only by the will of the ruler. But in practice, the imposition of high taxes on the population destroyed the incentives of those being taxed to produce, ultimately drying up the rulers’ source of revenue, often leading to the fall of the overreaching extractive political regime.
The American Founders, building on the liberal political theories of the 17th and 18th centuries, envisioned a different polity, a limited government the purpose of which was to protect the natural rights of its citizens. Such a government would of course require revenues, but taxes would be limited because the ends of government were limited.
The Constitution’s “spending clause” (Art. I, Sec. 8, Clause 1) permits the levying of taxes for only two purposes: to pay the debts of the United States and to provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States. Some Founders, especially Alexander Hamilton, supported an expansive spending and taxing power for the national government, but even this most ardent advocate of a strong national government understood the limited purposes of government. For Hamilton, the taxing and spending power of the national government was best focused on stimulating economic growth.
Hamilton and the other Founders understood, as Adam Smith taught, that freedom and economic growth could occur only if the government’s power to interfere with the natural rights of individuals, especially the right to property, was constrained. They understood that sacrificing the natural rights of individual citizens to a government of unlimited powers would lead to slavery, not freedom. As James Madison argued in Federalist 10, the protection of the diverse faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, “is the first object of government.”
As we have argued repeatedly in these letters, the Founders’ understanding of the Constitution as a charter for limited government has over the course of a century largely been overturned by a progressivism the central idea of which is that the job of government is to provide for the material well-being of all. The government envisioned by the progressives is necessarily unlimited in scope. And if the ends of government are unlimited, the revenues necessary to achieve those ends are likewise unlimited. Progressive government is a return to an extractive political regime.
In practice, taxation under the progressives’ extractive regime amounts to adjudicating the distribution of resources among competing claimants. For today’s progressives, the United States is not a community of individuals, but an array of groups whose demands must be met. But since government produces nothing on its own, certain favored groups prosper at the expense of others. Wealth must be transferred from more productive citizens to less productive ones. Modern progressives may invoke the language of rights, but what they really mean by the term, as we have seen, are privileges or claims to resources that are granted by government. All of this is done in the name of “equity” and “fairness.”
The problem with the progressive version of the extractive polity is the same one that the old-fashioned extractive polity faced: raising taxes to pay for an unlimited government destroys the incentives of productive citizens to create the wealth that underpins economic growth. Without economic growth, taxes and wealth transfers create a zero-sum or negative-sum outcome. This situation is what economists call “rent-seeking”: the distribution of a fixed stock of goods. Politics in such a regime is reduced to the maneuvering of politicians seeking advantage by redistributing wealth to favored groups in the expectation that those favored groups will re-elect them.
As the old saying goes, all that is certain in life is death and taxes. The problem today is that progressivism has distorted the end of government, eliminating the constraints the Founders recognized as necessary in a republic dedicated to the protection of natural rights. But unlimited government requires unlimited revenues. The result is a system of taxation that kills economic growth by interfering with the release of productive capital into the economy. Those who want a preview of the future of a progressive America need only look to Europe, where governments seeking to redistribute wealth have run out of other people’s money.