Issues & Insights
Screenshot from CNN sponsored debate.

Brutus Warned Us About Elizabeth Warren And Bernie Sanders

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have led the Democratic charge to add many zeros to what some are to get at other’s expense. They have not, however, been as forthcoming about the Brobdingnagian burdens their profligate Santa clauses would impose on Americans, as if they are trying to rebut the claim that if “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society,” then the civilization we get must be worth the taxes we are forced to pay.

But this issue is hardly new. Over two centuries ago, Antifederalists warned us that the price we would have to pay for government would rise far beyond what is justifiable. They were particularly concerned that the Constitution gave the federal government almost unlimited taxing discretion.

One leading Antifederalist was Robert Yates, who withdrew from the Constitutional Convention because it was exceeding its instructions, who wrote as Brutus. And when I read his words, it is hard not to feel that he knew Warren and Sanders.

Brutus described federal taxing power as one

that has such latitude, which reaches every person in the community in every conceivable circumstance, and take hold of every species of property they possess, and which has no bounds set to it, but the discretion of those who exercise it.

In addition,

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…It opens the door to the appointment of a swarm of revenue and excise officers to prey upon the honest and industrious part of the community (and) eat up their substance.

In fact, federal taxation “will introduce such an infinite number of laws and ordinances, fines and penalties, courts and judges, collectors, and excise men, that when a man can number them, he may enumerate the stars of Heaven.” Brutus also described how invasive tax collection could become:

This power, exercised without limitation, will introduce itself into every corner of the city, and country…it will enter the house of every gentleman…it will take cognizance of the professional man in his office, or study; it will watch the merchant in the counting-house, or in his store; it will follow the mechanic to his shop, and in his work, and will haunt him…and finally, it will light upon the head of every person in the United States. To all these different classes of people, and in all these circumstances, in which it will attend them, the language in which it will address them will be GIVE! GIVE!

That sounds very much like trying to enforce draconian taxes.

Brutus described the consequences of expansive federal taxing powers. But he was writing only of direct (e.g., excise) taxes and the small federal government they could finance, long before the 16th Amendment made possible a federal income tax in 1913, not to mention the punitive levels it could reach, nor the probably more burdensome, unconstitutional wealth taxes that have been proposed. So Brutus would conclude he was far too optimistic about the burdens of American government.

And Antifederalists were not the only founders who would condemn what Warren and Sanders have proposed. James Madison shared their concerns for Americans’ property rights, the cornerstone of productive social cooperation:

A just security to property is not afforded by that government, under which unequal taxes oppress one species of property and reward another species: where arbitrary taxes invade the domestic sanctuaries of the rich, and excessive taxes grind the faces of the poor…in violation of that sacred property, which Heaven…kindly reserved to him.

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.

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