Income redistribution is at the heart of virtually every fiscal battle in American politics today, from proposals for higher income, wealth and corporate profits taxes to state and local property tax deductibility and whatever spending can be shoehorned into supposed COVID-19 relief or infrastructure legislation. That is because every policy giving some what they don’t pay for must come from others’ pockets. With nearly half of current federal spending financed by borrowing, it is also, more than ever, funded out of future generations’ pockets, as if that made it free money.
Unfortunately, the premise underlying such disproportionate burdens – that it is an appropriate federal government role to take from some to give to others of its choosing – is inconsistent with America’s founding principles. And that is also the case for the government overstepping, disparate treatment and unequal justice those funds have financed.
Few have articulated it better than Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the most prolific founder on our rights and liberty, whose April 13 birthday many Americans have traditionally “celebrated” by puzzling over tax forms. And while we have been given a bit of a tax-filing reprieve this year, the last thing we need is the current reprieve we are taking from his principles.
Consider just some of Jefferson’s wisdom on these topics, which contrasts so sharply with the foolishness (or whatever other antonym to wisdom you prefer to use) now emerging from the D.C. Beltway:
The policy of the American government is to leave their citizens free, neither restraining nor aiding them in their pursuits.
What more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? … 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 true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen in his person and property and in their management.
The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.
The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents.
Our legislators are not sufficiently apprised … that their true office is to declare and enforce only our natural rights and duties and to take none of them from us.
The care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the first and only legitimate object of good government.
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 … it might be much simplified to the relief of those who maintain it.
Our wish is that … [there be] maintained that state of property, equal or unequal, which results to every man from his own industry or that of this fathers.
The right of self-government does not comprehend the government of others.
No government has a right to do what is not for the welfare of the governed.
The minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression.
Elective despotism was not the government we fought for.
The most sacred of the duties of a government is to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens.
It [is] … ridiculous to suppose that a man had less rights in himself than … his neighbors … This would be slavery, and not that liberty … for the preservation of which our government has been charged.
[The] pillars of our prosperity are the most thriving when left most free to individual enterprise.
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.
When all government … in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the center of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another, and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated.
It [is] inconsistent with the principles of civil liberty, and contrary to the natural rights of the other members of the society, that any body of men therein should have authority to enlarge their own powers … without restraint.
Jefferson made clear that America was not established to take from some for others, which would violate citizens’ liberty and property. Our Constitution reflects that same view, containing not a single word authorizing federal income redistribution, but several clauses, which, 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? It can’t. So it is time to dump the delusion that imposing disproportionate burdens should be a feature of American government, rather than a violation of core American principles.