Independence Day, freedom, and politics

On the Fourth of July, citizens of the United States of America celebrate Independence Day. Especially as part of a three-day weekend, the festivities include parades, picnics and cookouts, outdoor concerts, and fireworks shows. Independence Day is the biggest national holiday that is not faith-based, as are Christmas and Easter. Best of all, though, is that the day commemorates signatures on a document. The holiday is not about victory in battle, like Mexico’s Cinco de Mayo. It is not about a mob storming a castle, like France’s Bastille Day. Independence Day is about ideas: the idea of freedom, the idea of human rights, and the idea of government limited by the people and responsible to the people.

Thomas Jefferson echoed the philosophy of John Locke when he wrote that “all men are created equal… [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights… among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Locke’s formula had been simpler—life, liberty, and property—but nothing is more American than the idea of the pursuit of happiness. Happiness is not guaranteed. Being created equal does not ensure that all people will be equally happy. We possess the right to pursue happiness, seeking happiness where we expect it to be found.

All rights are limited. Most Americans concede that a murderer or other violent criminal has waived a right to life, although a minority opposes the death penalty in all cases. Americans generally agree that certain crimes lead to imprisonment, a loss of liberty, although ongoing prison reform is needed to keep imprisonment from being a cruel and unusual punishment. Nearly all Americans concede the right of the government to tax its citizens so it can provide services needed by those citizens. These include the work of armed forces to keep citizens safe from hostile foreign governments and terrorists, police protection where we live, public schools, highways, inspections of various kinds to protect workers and customers and to limit pollution, and many other government functions. Citizens debate how many services the government should provide and how much property and liberty it can claim to make those services available. My point is that we can debate these questions. We can talk about them and write about them without fear of arrest and punishment. We can send messages to our leaders. We can vote leaders out of office and replace them with new leaders. We can work in campaigns of potential leaders or campaigns targeting specific policies and causes.

Freedom is not cheap. Not only do we need armed forces to protect us from those who would rob us of our freedom; we also need men and women willing to serve as leaders. These men and women know that they will be publicly insulted, mocked, and reviled. They expect to work long hours to educate themselves about the issues facing government, to respond to requests from the citizens they represent, and to talk to one another about the choices that must be made in their sessions. They will be paid less money than they could receive in other careers for which their abilities qualify them. They will be called “politicians” as if that word is vulgar. The positions they take will be challenged vigorously by opponents, and then they will be scolded by their supporters for compromises they must make to accomplish the work of government.

The word “politics” comes from the word “polis,” which described the independent units of ancient Greece (such as Athens, Sparta, and Corinth). Some poleis were monarchies; others were oligarchies. Athens experimented with broader participation in government, which their leaders called “democracy.” To make democracy work, citizens had to talk to each other. They had to listen to each other. They had to defend the ideas that were most important to them. They had to compromise on some of their ideas to preserve those ideas that ranked highest to them.

Politics is the art of communication and compromise which allows a government to rule wisely and efficiently. Otto von Bismarck is quoted as saying, “Laws are like sausages—you lose your appetite for them when you see how they are made.” Politics is not a career for the weak-hearted or the thick-headed. Politics requires quick and clear thinking, the ability to listen and to speak, and zeal for serving the citizens of a city, a state, or a country. Politics requires a strong trust in one’s own abilities, but also the humility to realize that, in every election, more than half the candidates are going to lose.

America needs politicians. In the United States, we have the privilege to choose among our politicians, to try to select the best of them to be our leaders, to disagree with our leaders, to inform them of our positions and beliefs, and to work to replace the leaders we think are wrong. This freedom, defined by the Continental Congress in 1776 and eventually structured by the Constitution of the United States, is celebrated on Independence Day across this great land. From sea to shining sea, let freedom ring! J.

 

Taxation

The Christian attitude toward taxes is set in the New Testament. Jesus said, “Give Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give God what is God’s.” Paul wrote to the Romans, “If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” Christians living in a democracy can do more, though, than pay what they owe. They can advise their leaders on the topic of taxation, they can choose their leaders according to their statements about taxation, and they can speak and write to shape public opinion about taxation.

Taxes are part of the social contract between government and its citizens. Citizens surrender some property to the government in the form of taxes, and the government provides benefits for its citizens in exchange for that property. Benefits can include armed forces to protect the nation from attack and police forces to protect communities from crime. Using tax dollars, governments build and maintain roads, finance schools, and provide parks, museums, libraries, and community centers. Tax dollars maintain the judicial system in which criminals are prosecuted and (if found guilty) punished and by which two parties can settle their differences without resorting to physical attacks on one another.

Taxes can take many forms. In a head tax, every person pays the same amount. In a flat tax, every person pays the same percentage of his or her income. In a graduated tax, wealthy people pay a larger percentage of their income and poor people pay a small percentage (and some of them pay no income tax). Tolls are collected from people as they use highways or bridges. Import fees and export fees can be charged on products when they cross borders. Sales taxes can be assessed when products are bought and sold. Fees for licenses to own a car or a gun or a pet are taxes. Money paid for a marriage license or a fishing license is a tax. Landowners pay taxes on their land. Investors pay taxes on their profits. Even money won through gambling is taxed.

Governments assess taxes for several reasons. The most obvious reason is, of course, to gather money for government services. However, taxes can be used to discourage some kinds of behavior and to encourage other kinds of behavior. Taxes on tobacco and on alcohol discourage people from smoking and from drinking. Taxes on gasoline might motivate drivers to drive less or to purchase more efficient vehicles. On the other hand, capital gains are taxed at a lower rate to encourage people with extra money to invest in businesses that provide jobs.  Property taxes on industrial land frequently are reduced or eliminated when a city or state wants to encourage companies to build new facilities that will provide jobs.

Taxes sometimes have unintended consequences. Some years ago a state wanted to raise more money to cover unemployment benefits, and it wanted to raise that money by taxing only wealthy people. For that reason, the state government enacted a special sales tax on luxury yachts. To avoid paying that tax, the wealthy people in that state decided not to buy new luxury yachts. Because yachts were not being bought, the yacht manufacturing companies had to lay off workers. Instead of raising money to cover unemployment benefits, the state’s yacht tax only increased unemployment.

An increase in the gasoline tax causes an increase in the price of a loaf of bread. Farmers need gasoline to operate their machinery when they plant the seeds and when they harvest the grain. Then the grain must be driven to the mill, and the flour must be driven from the mill to the bakery, and the bread must be driven from the bakery to the store. No one in this chain of production is willing to pay more for fuel while receiving the same amount of money for their work. The cost gets passed along the line until it reaches the man or woman who is buying the loaf of bread. By the same token, other taxes on products and the producers of products only raise prices in the stores. Governments that tax the factory owner may think that they are taxing the wealthy, but they are only driving up prices for all people, including the poor.

Many citizens would like to pay less money for taxes. To achieve that, they have to be willing to have the government provide fewer benefits to its citizens. Other people want the government to do more for its citizens. They have to be willing to pay higher taxes. Any request to have the government do more to help one group of people while asking another group to pay for the service with higher taxes misses the point. People pay taxes willingly only when they know they are getting something for their money. Again, this is part of the social contract.

On its own, a tax is neither good nor bad. It just is. The value of a tax comes from the government’s ability to use tax dollars to provide citizens with the services they want. Politicians who want to be elected sometimes promise to cut taxes without reducing popular services. Others promise to provide more services without raising taxes. They rarely keep these promises if they are elected. Sometimes politicians who have been elected threaten to cut funding for popular programs (or actually do cut that funding) until citizens object, funding is restored, and taxes are not reduced. If I were running for office, I would never make a promise I couldn’t keep. If I were elected, I would be responsible with your tax dollars; I would not play tricks with them or waste your money. J.