Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Creating the Federal Government
Article VIII of the Articles of Confederation, the predecessor to our Constitution, is the only piece of that document that deals with taxes, and it’s worth quoting verbatim:
All charges of war and all other expenses that shall be incurred for the common defence or general welfare, and allowed by the united states in congress assembled, shall be defrayed out of a common treasury, which shall be supplied by the several states, in proportion to the value of all land within each state, granted to or surveyed for any Person, as such land and the buildings and improvements thereon shall be estimated according to such mode as the united states in congress assembled, shall from time to time direct and appoint. The taxes for paying that proportion shall be laid and levied by the authority and direction of the legislatures of the several states within the time agreed upon by the united states in congress assembled.
You don’t have to be a Philadelphia lawyer to see that this approach was rife with problems and horrific ambiguities. Who, for instance, estimates the value of the land, and what, if any, are the options for challenging that estimate? But the central problem lies in the last sentence, which leaves tax collection entirely up to the states, with no means provided of compelling them to pay. If a state legislature doesn’t agree with congress’ determination of its fair share, or if it can’t agree on what form of tax should be used to raise the necessary monies, nothing much is going to happen, revenue-wise.
And that, in a nutshell, is why Washington’s Continental Army froze and starved in the midst of plenty at Valley Forge, unable to pay for food and clothing. It’s also why America borrowed most of the money it needed to fight the War of Independence; then, as now, it was deemed easier to borrow than to tax.
We learned in school that the Articles of Confederation were too weak and ineffective to allow for a functioning government, which is how we ended up with the Constitution. In contrast to the mealy-mouthed language of its predecessor, Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution is absolutely explicit about the government’s taxing power. Its first paragraph reads,
The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Posts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.
Then, after further enumerating the powers of Congress that section of the Constitution concludes by granting Congress the power:
To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.
Say what you will about the Founding Fathers, but they learned from their mistakes. The Constitution they wrote was vehemently attacked in its time as being a springboard to tyranny. It hasn’t delivered tyranny (at least not yet), but it has allowed for some semblance of governance, without which no nation can progress or prosper.
Those today who profess to love the Constitution often forget that it was written for the purpose of creating the Federal Government. Its tone in the sections above is bold and assertive, compared to the passivity of the Articles. Even the capitalization speaks volumes; the Articles refer to a lower-case united states in congress assembled, while the Constitution speaks of the United States and the Government of the United States. In this case, the capitals don’t lie.