Tax day is fast approaching, and as I prepare my paperwork I’m put in mind of simpler times when tax collecting was more honest and more direct without the bureaucratic middle men, but with basically the same result.
A hundred years ago in many nations, and much more recently in some third world countries, tax collection basically consisted of heavily armed men – perhaps from the army – coming by your house periodically and seizing any assets you hadn’t hidden well enough. They might beat you to find your hidden treasure or to get you to inform on neighbors, or perhaps rape your wife and daughters to get you to talk. The classic image this calls to mind is the fearsome Cossack of the last century in Russia, empowered by the government to go around in bands to rural areas and make sure that every peasant and serf was giving their all for the Empire. The bearded, heavily armed and stoic Cossacks were the perfect tax collectors for Russia, because not only were they fearsome with a reputation for barbarity, but they were highly mobile horsemen who could travel anywhere quickly. Plus they were non-Russians who enjoyed a priveleged status and reveled in lording it over the Russians who had conquered their country yet whose government had embraced them as shock troops and brutish instruments of authority. Where Russian troops might not have pillaged their own population, the proud and barbaric Cossacks would do so with joy, laughing through their dark beards as they impoverished the peasantry and enriched the government.
But for all the barbarity, violence and outrages against decency, the Cossacks and how they were used was profoundly honest. They operated on the principle that whatever the peasant didn’t have absolute and immediate need of essentially belonged to the government and would be taken by force at the government’s pleasure. No idealistic fiction of property rights stood in their way. What the government wanted they took, and woe to anyone who got in their way. Very efficient and brutally honest.
Today that same rapacious mentality is cloaked in the piled papers and suited bureaucrats of the Internal Revenue Service. They may not be Cossacks in form, but they are Cossacks in essence, using the enormous might of the imperial federal government to squeeze every little bit they can from the peasants of modern America. It’s all about feeding the monstrous appetite of a government which has gone amok, which rules over its people rather than governing for the people.
When the founding fathers started this country and authored the Constitution they were reacting against the Cossack-equivalents of red-coated British soldiers breaking down doors and holding forced inventories on behalf of the customs examiners. They wrote into the Constitution an absolute prohibition on taxation of income or individuals as a means by which the federal government could raise revenue. Article I, Section 9, Clause 4 reads “No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in Proportion to the Census or Enumeration herein before directed to be taken.” This means that the Congress can tax the states based on their population and the states can then raise that money by whatever means they want to, but that the federal government can never go directly to the people and take their money away.
Ironically, at about the time the Russians were getting rid of the Cossacks and trying to reform their government our states made the terrible mistake of ratifying the 16th Amendment to the Constitution which essentially overrode the prohibition on an income tax, effectively inviting the Cossacks into the federal government, and they’ve been there ever since, feeding off the public and growing fat and complacent.
And make no mistake, the gray-suited bureaucrats of the IRS are indeed the modern equivalent of Cossacks. Their ceaseless demands for more and more money to feed the beast are backed up by just as much imperial force as the Cossacks ever wielded. They may not hold a gun to your head, but they have plenty of power to destroy lives. They will seize your property, terrorize your family, drive you into bankruptcy – the modern equivalent of debtors prison, and hound you beyond the grave if necessary to get their fat fingers on the last copper kopek in your purse. They’re Cossacks in cheap suits and comfortable shoes.
The latest news is that like the commissars of old Mother Russia, the leaders of the IRS are sure that we’re hiding some chickens under our barn floors and burying coins in the farmyard. They are convinced that there is a $300 billion gap between what they believe is owed and what is actually being paid, and they are going to step up enforcement – send more Cossacks to your door more often with bigger swords – to make sure they get it all. That means more audits, closer examination of returns, and every other effort to squeeze us until we bleed.
Think for a minute about what it says about modern America that I can even make this comparison to the Cossacks of Imperial Russia and not really be too far off the mark. Sure, interest, withholding, penalties and liens all sound nicer and more legalistic, but they still come down to taking your property and your earnings by force. There may not be a literal Cossack at your door, but there’s one sitting at a computer wielding a red pen instead of a sword and he means you just as much harm.
This certainly isn’t the kind of revenue raising our Founding Fathers had in mind, and it feeds a government which they would hardly recognize as well. They envisioned small, efficient and inexpensive government that provided the bare necessities and left most of the work to the states and plenty of freedom to the individual citizens. They had no love or Cossacks, Redcoats or the penny-grabbing bureaucrats who now run our nation. They would scoff at us for being willing to put up with this sort of oppression when they were willing to fight and die to escape it and even the illiterate Russian peasants eventually rose up in revolt.
So on April 15th, when you sign that tax return and look at how much you’re paying to keep the Cossacks from your door, remember that there was a time only a few generations ago when Americans would have laughed at the idea that our citizens would be taxed the way that peasants were in Imperial Russia or in despotic third world nations.