Friday, March 17, 2017

Representation without Taxation

"No taxation without representation!" was a slogan of the American Revolutionary war. Yes, they had slogans back then, too. And this slogan -- while catchy --  was not much more than a slogan. Like many other slogans, it did not directly translate into policy. In order to solve the disparity of representation of the Colonists as British subjects, they could have been given seats in the British Parliament. Then their representatives in the House of Commons might have voted on the Stamp Act along with the representatives of all their English speaking compatriots, and they could  have gotten great solace from the fact that even though the tax had not been repealed, they had had a "voice" in the matter.

James Macpherson argued that the Colonists should have asked for seats in the House of Commons

In  The Rights of Great Britain Asserted, published in 1776, James Macpherson, Colonial Secretary of British West Florida, called the rebellious Colonists' bluff:

Had the Americans, instead of flying to arms, submitted the same supposed grievance, in a peaceable and dutiful manner, to the Legislature, I can perceive no reason why their request should be refused. Had they, like the County and City of Chester, represented, that "for lack of Knights and Burgesses to represent them in the High Court of Parliament, they had been oftentimes TOUCHED and GRIEVED with Acts and Statutes made within the said Court, derogatory to their most ancient jurisdictions, liberties and privileges, and prejudicial to their quietness, rest and peace;" this Country would, I am persuaded, have no objection to their being represented in her Parliament... If they are not madly bent on independence, let them propose the conditions on which they wish to continue as subjects...

Let's face it: it was never about equal representation. The Colonists didn't want equality with their distant cousins. They had no desire to vote and get outvoted by their brethren abroad. They did not want to continue as subjects under any conditions. They wanted to be self-governing, They didn't want the British outside the American colonies to have any say in the matter.  The Colonists didn't want more representation. They wanted less taxation.  They wanted to be free.

Today, when we look back to that slogan of no taxation without representation, people often criticize the representational scheme that the American states first put into effect once they were free from the British. We are told that women and blacks could not vote -- and that there were poll taxes and even poor white men were kept from voting in some places, if they did not own property. And we are expected to consider our current uniform voting rights to be so much more enlightened than those propounded by the Founding Fathers and the legislatures of the several states, as each worked out its own suffrage laws. All the while we ignore the fact that the yoke of taxation that all of us suffer under is much heavier than ever the British Crown would dare to impose in 1776.

Why is that? Why are our taxes so much higher under "freedom" than they were as British subjects?

Just maybe it has something to do with who is allowed to vote about what today. When people who don't get taxed have equal representation with those who pay the tax in question, this rather skews the outcome of the vote in favor of higher taxation. That's why removing all the voters in Britain from the right to vote in America was a much more effective cure than giving Americans seats in the House of Commons.

This is also why a state such as New Jersey right after the revolution, in its own enlightened self interest, allowed everyone, blacks, women, or poor whites to vote, as long as they were free, not in debt, had a net worth of fifty pounds and had lived in the county for a year.

Today, people who have nothing are voting on representatives who have the power to tax people who have something. This happens at the Federal level with regard to income taxation, but it is not the only place where it happens. Even in a governmental unit as lowly as a county or a school district, people who own no property get to vote on the property taxes that are imposed on people with property. This ultimately hurts everybody, but the poor are encouraged to do this, because they are told it will hurt only "the rich". We have been taught to worry about the rights of the poor, but nobody seems to have spoken to us of how helpless any property owner is in a county where most people own nothing.

In Vacuum County, I touch obliquely on this issue.

He wasn't laughing any more. "At least it saved me
some money."
"Every hearing is at taxpayer expense. And I pay
eighty percent of the taxes in this county."
I thought about that. "And yet you only get one vote."
He smiled. "It hardly seems fair, does it?" (paqe 334, Vacuum County.)

In school districts where a large percentage of voters are living in subsidized housing, property taxes tend to go up. Sometimes homeowners are baffled by it, not understanding whether their neighbors are so rich that they can afford the extra taxes that they themselves cannot or whether all the other voters are just plain stupid enough to vote for every proposed tax hike. The answer is much simpler. The voters who support the tax hikes are neither rich nor stupid: they simply have nothing at stake. They are not property owners, and we are no longer allowed to keep people who don't own property from voting on property taxes.

The slogan the colonists used was not exactly what they were fighting for. It was not "no taxation without representation" as James Macpherson so ably noted. But maybe what they meant to say is "no representation without something at stake." If you are not going to be subject to a tax, you should not get to vote on it.


  1. I never think we will live in a completely tax free society, but there needs to be an end to property taxes, and other taxes, which are not always used equitably. My parents already pay taxes to the county, but a few years ago they property owners nearby decided they should pay an additional unincorporated county tax just to have their roads ploughed. It never made any sense, especially since they were still paying other county taxes. Also, one man who owned a house in this area was not informed about the proposed taxes because he rented the house out, and had no right to vote in the refrendum regarding the tax hike. But the people renting from him did, even though he was the one who would ultimately have to pay the property tax since he was the landlord. A lot of taxes are not quite equitable, and there should be a better way.

    1. Hi, Julia. I think you gave a few very good examples of how property taxes are unfair, once people who have nothing at stake get to vote on them. I think if getting a road plowed is something that people want, they can make arrangements to pay for it, sharing the cost equally amongst those who want that. But nobody should be forced.