One would not think “in some ways the most impressive political theorist that America has produced,” according to legal historian M.J.C. Vile, would remain essentially unknown here. But that is true of John Taylor of Caroline.
Taylor served in the Continental Army, the Virginia Legislature, and the U.S. Senate. But he is best characterized for causes that, looking back, he was on the losing side of.
He was an Antifederalist, opposed to the strong central government he believed the Constitution would create. After it was ratified, he defended liberty and states’ rights against being overpowered by the federal government by advocating a strict interpretation of the Constitution’s terms, particularly against overreaching courts. As F. Thornton Miller described it, “For Taylor, the Constitution was of worth only if it could serve the more fundamental cause of liberty.” He also vigorously opposed government favors and protectionism, “the most efficacious system of tyranny practicable over civilized nations.”
Taylor’s positions stand all but abandoned today. Government has become a nearly ubiquitous dispenser of special treatment at others’ expense. And when was the last time you heard or read an honest defense of economic freedom? That is why Taylor’s understanding of what Joseph Stromberg termed “the contrast between those whose property was the creature of political force and fraud and those who earned their property through productive work on the free market,” which was the main point of his 1822 “Tyranny Unmasked,” merits revisiting.
Governments able to do so uniformly sacrifice the national interest to their own.
What painter has drawn liberty … with an overflowing treasury in her lap and scattering money and exclusive privileges with her hands?
No government can patronize one class but at the expense of others … their discord [is] the universal consequence of the fraudulent power assumed by governments of allotting to classes and individuals indigence or wealth.
The justice of leaving wealth to be distributed by industry is a sound sponsor for social harmony; while the injustice of compelling one class to work for another … excites rapacity and indignation.
Political liberty consists only in a government constituted to preserve and not to defeat the natural capacity of providing for our own good.
Payments … extorted to feed either an oppressive government or exclusive privileges … degenerate into actual tyranny.
Is there any moral difference between effecting a transfer of property by violence … or legal privileges?
The only reciprocity produced by [government favors] is between the corrupters and corrupted.
If a man should combine with a government to take away another’s property, the tyranny of the act would not be obliterated by the power of an accomplice.
All the stratagems for transferring property internally by restrictions, privileges, and monopolies … [are] against the liberty and happiness of mankind.
The remedy for exclusive privileges, as constantly proposed, is more exclusive privileges, under pretense of removing the oppressions they have caused. The rival remedy for our troubles … is reducible to a few principles … Return to frugality; restore a free trade; abolish exclusive privileges … surrender legislative patronage; surrender, also, legislative judicial power; and vindicate the inviolability of property.
The nation which imagines that … a good government can by provisions convert fraud into honesty relies upon a moral impossibility for the preservation of its liberty.
Governments, under pretense of supervising the affairs of individuals … enrich themselves and their instruments of oppression.
Government should … operate upon all the living members of the society equally … because it is the very essence of tyranny to inflict privations in order to reap or to bestow gratifications.
Laws for creating exclusive privileges and monopolies corrupt governments, interests, and individuals; and substitute patronage, adulation, and favor, for industry, as the road to wealth.
The treasure extorted beyond the line of honest frugality is uniformly diverted from the end of defending to that of transferring property.
The wealth of nations is best secured by allowing every person, as long as he adheres to the rules of justice, to pursue his own interest in his own way.
Government … produces much good by frugality and justice or much harm by extravagance and exclusive privileges.
An assumption of power by a government to … use [others’] property in donations to individuals or combinations, is … tyranny.
All reflecting individuals, except those bribed by self-interest, believe that liberty can only be preserved by a frugal government and by excluding frauds for transferring property from one man to another.
How then is tyranny to be ascertained … except as something which takes away our money, transfers our property and comforts to those who did not earn them, and eats the food belonging to others.
A free government cannot subsist in union with extravagance, heavy taxation, exclusive privileges or with any established process by which a great amount of property is annually transferred to unproductive employments.
Laws are passed for the purpose of transferring property from the people to patronized individuals … ought not its cause to be sought for and removed, by all those who prefer a good to a bad government?
The transferring policy seems to suppose that the public has no property; and though legislatures have no moral or constitutional right to give one man’s property to another; yet that by combining the property of all men under the appellation “public,” they acquire both a moral and constitutional right to give the property of all men to one man.
There are two kinds of political economy. One consists of a frugal government, and an encouragement of individuals to earn, by suffering them to use; the other of contrivances for feeding an extravagant government, its parasites and partisans, its sinecures and exclusive privileges … one requires but few laws, and few tax gatherers; the other requires a multitude of both … one demonstrates … people who know how to keep their property; the other demonstrates the existence of a political combination which knows how to get their property; one kind of political economy is liberty; the other is tyranny.
A government well constituted for securing the principles of liberty may be strong for that purpose, and if so, it must be weak for the purpose of oppression; and a government so constituted as to be able to oppress, must on the contrary be weak for the object of preserving liberty.
Every innovation which weakens the limitations and divisions of power, alone able to make a government strong for the object of preserving liberty, makes it strong for the object of oppression.
Government … founded upon a supposed necessity that men must be robbed of their property to preserve social order … invariably terminates in despotism.
If the general good is the end of self-government, and if the property-transferring policy defeats the general good, it also defeats self-government … the property-transferring policy in all its forms, however disguised, is a tyrannical imposition.
Liberty can only be preserved by a frugal government and by excluding frauds for transferring property from one man to another.
“Tyranny Unmasked” reveals why Vernon Harrington called John Taylor of Caroline (of whom Thomas Jefferson once noted, “Colonel Taylor and myself have rarely, if ever, differed in any political principle of importance”) “a thinker too little recognized by later Americans.” It also demonstrates why he deserves renewed attention. As F. Thornton Miller wrote, “Most of Taylor’s world is gone. But, with the continued increase in the power of the federal government and the pursuit of policies that benefit specific constituencies, the principles set out in ‘Tyranny Unmasked’ are as relevant today as they were in 1822.”
Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.