Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743. We honor him not just as the author of the Declaration of Independence, but as one of the great statesmen and political prognosticators of the American Founding. He saw, perhaps better than most, the dangers of a centralized state. And one of the most destructive forces threatening personal freedom and equal rights was and remains the government's power to levy taxes.
Jefferson believed that "Perfection of the function of taxation . . . [is] to do equal and impartial justice to all." It is hard to imagine how a tax code that is thicker than eight Bibles could do "equal and impartial justice" to the American people. Anyone who has ever attempted to get a straight answer from the Internal Revenue Service knows this to be the case.
Yet it is precisely on the question of taxation that the Party of Jefferson has parted company with its intellectual forebear. Unfortunately, the Party of Lincoln hasn't proved itself any more worthy. The problem is that parties have lost sight of the original principles upon which the republic was founded.
It is widely thought that the American Revolution was fought over excessive taxes. Not true. When Boston held its famous "tea party," the tax in question amounted to a few pennies per pound of tea. The real issue was consent, the rallying cry "no taxation without representation," for, "if we are not represented, we are slaves."
Today, Americans do not lack the opportunity to consent in the same way that America's revolutionaries lacked it. We do not face a king and parliament across an ocean. But government has become unaccountable in other ways. Revenue agents and those who spend the money they collect operate with broad and virtually unchecked powers.
But how did they obtain such power in the first place? Congress delegated it to them, abandoning its own responsibilities to write clear laws. Congress has the power to take it back. That it has not done so is a failure not just of lawmakers to hold the IRS accountable, but of voters to hold their own representatives' feet to the fire.
This was foreseeable. More than a century before the 16th Amendment was ratified and the IRS was unleashed upon the public, Jefferson spoke of the corruption that goes hand in hand with taxation.
In his second inaugural address, Jefferson boasted of slashing taxes — "These covering our land with officers, and opening our doors to intrusions, had already begun that process of domiciliary vexation which, once entered, is scarcely to be restrained from reaching successfully every article of produce and property." He considered it a triumph for his administration to eliminate "unnecessary offices" and "useless establishments," which allowed for tax cuts.
To guard against the steady rise of such "unnecessary â€¦ and useless establishments," the Founders did two things to maintain a close connection between taxation and consent. They kept the tax system simple and clear — emphasizing consumption taxes, which would be easy to understand — and chose a method of collection that was decentralized. Income taxes, in particular, could only be collected by the states.
Today, it's difficult to imagine a tax or fee the federal government would be unwilling to collect. The two hottest topics on Capitol Hill right now are how to "save" Social Security — a bankrupt system of intergenerational transfer payments funded by payroll taxes — and how to collect taxes on Internet commerce.
Jefferson had a more sensible view of all this. "To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill," he wrote, "is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, 'the guarantee to ever of a free exercise of his industry, and the fruits acquired by it.'"
Our representatives — of both parties — have either forgotten that or have chosen to ignore it. They would do Jefferson and the American people an honor and a service to remember it.