Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Liberty at a Painful Price: Conscription is a Form of Taxation

Throughout the Revolutionary War (1775 to 1783), the Continental Army was chronically short of money, men, and materiel. Both the will and the ability of the Continental Congress impose taxes were limited.

The army was obliged to resort to impressment: the commandeering of private property. It was a bitter irony that the revolution against the British was triggered, in part, by England’s practice of impressment. To throw off the yoke of British tyranny, the Americans were forced to use the very practice of the tyrants.

The Continental Army also needed to fill its ranks with conscripts. ‘Conscription’ refers to what became known as the ‘draft’ in later American history.

Historians John Maass writes:

Although North Carolina officials resorted to impressment early in the struggle for independence, the practice became more widespread once the British campaigned actively in the South beginning in December 1778. Seizure of supplies by civilian and military officials both angered and impoverished the citizenry. The practice did nothing to engender affection for the Revolutionary cause among enraged inhabitants, many of whom resisted impressment by hiding their produce, livestock, or goods. They often complained when, as was commonly the case, they were given depreciated currency or certificates of dubious worth for their property, which was frequently valued below the market price. Property owners were often given no certificates or payment at all, and had to strive for years to get redress from the state. Few things were exempt from confiscation during the war: authorities seized not only guns, wagons, and horses, but rum, sugar, coffee, paper, canvas, and salt as well. Moreover, many times impressment was used by men of all ranks as a cover for plundering local inhabitants, which could hardly have endeared the North Carolina government to its citizens.

Leaders in the Continental Army were well aware that the practice of impressment could undermine the much-needed popular support for the war.

Officers like General Nathanael Greene undertook efforts to eliminate the corruption and private profiteering which occurred among the men assigned by the army to impress property.

When private property was impressed, records were supposed to be kept, with the objective of postwar repayment to the owners. In many cases, however, either the records weren’t kept, or the postwar reimbursement never took place.

But the sincerity of the army’s efforts to eliminate corruption and the attachment of the populace to the cause of liberty were, if occasionally wavering, nonetheless sufficient to bring about the final victory.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

North Carolina: A Microcosm of Revolutionary Military Economics

It is probably incorrect to say that all wars are wars of attrition, but it is clear that materiel and personnel are decisive factors in any conflict. The American Revolutionary War, from 1775 to 1781, is no exception.

The Continental Army was continually plagued by a shortage of money, which meant a shortage of men and supplies. To combat this deficiency, the Continental Congress was generally unable to levy taxes; that power was left to each of the thirteen states individually.

The Continental Congress was able to borrow some money, but the army was still underfunded. This led inevitably to conscription and impressment.

Conscription, later known as ‘the draft,’ is involuntary military service. Impressment is the appropriation of supplies from the civilian population.

The exact implementation of these practices varied from time to time, and from place to place, during the war. The earlier phases of the war saw more combat in the North; the latter years of the war featured more combat in the South.

Historian John Maass writes:

North Carolina was not the only American province to adopt these taxing expedients. Impressment of supplies and wartime necessities occurred on the Continental and state levels throughout the war, beginning during the siege of Boston in 1775. Likewise, the use of conscription was widespread during the American Revolution from the opening months of the conflict to the end of the war. By focusing on wartime North Carolina, these two onerous practices and their consequences can be examined in detail.

The earliest documented impressment in North Carolina is dated to May 1776, according to Maass, which would be a year after the war began at Lexington and Concord.

But impressment in significant quantities didn’t begin until December 1778, as more fighting began to happen in the South.

The two main problems with impressment were that, first, it presented an almost insurmountable temptation to corruption, and that, second, it undermined popular opinion in support of the war.

Leaders in the Continental Army, like General Nathanael Greene, worked diligently to reduce corruption: to see to it that only necessary items were impressed, and that the impressed items served the army and not the personal enrichment of the officers tasked with impressing those items.

Greene’s efforts produced at least of modicum of acceptance among the civilian public.

Despite the difficulties of impressment and conscription, an American victory would almost certainly have been impossible without them. They represented a temporary sacrifice necessary to permanently abolish a bitter tyranny.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Examining the Narrative: Women’s Suffrage

A survey of textbooks and history courses reveals the standard narrative given to students about how women obtained the vote in the United States: After nearly 80 years of agitation, suffragettes finally succeeded in gaining passage for the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, and suddenly, women across the nation could begin voting.

That’s the conventional version of the history, and it’s wrong.

The first clue that there’s something inaccurate about this story is that Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to be elected to the United States Congress, was elected in 1916.

It would indeed be odd if women were being elected to Congress at a time when women were not allowed to vote.

In fact, in Jeannette Rankin’s home state of Montana, women had been voting since 1914. Women in Montana had full voting rights, in every way equal to men, more than six years prior to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

But Montana was late to the party. Women had obtained full suffrage in Wyoming in 1869, and in Colorado in 1893. Utah and Idaho recognized full suffrage for women in 1896.

In fact, prior to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, approximately 85% of the women in the United States were enfranchised. There were only seven of the 48 states in which women did not vote (Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alabama).

Women were already voting from New Jersey and Delaware to Oregon and California, from Minnesota and North Dakota to Texas and New Mexico - long before the Nineteenth Amendment.

While responsible historians do not speculate about counterfactual situations, it is clear that in those seven states which had not yet enfranchised women, legislative movements were underway to do just that. Even without the Nineteenth Amendment, the franchise would probably have expanded to the last 15% of women in the United States.

To say that 85% of the women had the vote prior to the Nineteenth Amendment may even be too low, because the seven states in which they didn’t vote had an average population lower than the 41 states in which they did vote. It was possibly closer to 90% than to 85%.

In some regions, more women were voting than men! Especially during wartime, when many men were away from home.

Women’s ability to vote, then, is not due to actions at the federal level in the early 1900s, but is rather due to actions at the state level in the late 1800s.

The United States led the way. Other nations around the globe didn’t give women the right to vote until much later: Women in the U.S. had been voting for 24 years before women in New Zealand got the right to vote in 1893. Other nations - Austria, Australia, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Netherlands, Sweden, etc. - waited until the early 1900s.

The political party which had been formed to abolish slavery in the United States, having accomplished that objective by 1863, made women’s suffrage its next major goal: the states which led the way - Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Colorado, and Utah - were largely populated by voters of that party.

While generations of schoolchildren have memorized the year 1920, it would be more accurate to cite 1869 as the year when women began to vote in the United States.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Thomas Paine on the Injustice of Monarchy

One major segment of Thomas Paine’s career was devoted to exposing the concept of monarchy as an institutionalized injustice. Paine’s earliest publications were newspaper articles starting in 1774, but he attained sudden fame in 1776 with the publication of Common Sense.

He went on to publish The American Crisis, a series of articles starting 1776 and ending in 1783. He subsequently published other books and articles.

The following passage is from a text in which he defends himself against the charge of libel - a charge directed against him by some who supported the British monarchy.

Notice how Paine unpacks his reasons for opposing hereditary government: monarchy leads to taxation, and taxation is oppression. Paine discovered an axiom of political economics: taxation does not lead to oppression, it does not enable oppression: it is oppression.

Monarchy also leads to poor education, to the neglect of the elderly and disabled, to a breakdown of diplomacy, and to more frequent and more vicious wars. Monarchy is an obstacle, Paine claims, to “peace, civilization, and commerce.” Monarchy is a “political superstition” which degrades humanity.

Monarchy leads to all these things, and monarchy is so closely associated with taxation that one might plausibly argue that taxation leads to all these things - indeed, that taxation is all these things. Paine writes:

If to expose the fraud and imposition of monarchy, and every species of hereditary government to lessen the oppression of taxes - to propose plans for the education of helpless infancy, and the comfortable support of the aged and distressed - to endeavor to conciliate nations to each other - to extirpate the horrid practice of war - to promote universal peace, civilization, and commerce - and to break the chains of political superstition, and raise degraded man to his proper rank; if these things be libellous, let me live the life of a libeller, and let the name of libeller be engraved on my tomb.

Paine’s attack on monarchy is so closely linked with his attack on taxation that it may well be impossible to separate them - both conceptually and in matters of concrete historical circumstance. Recall that it was taxation which sparked the hostilities in North America in 1775.

His later writings grew more diffuse as he wrestled intellectually with the machinations of the French Revolution, but even when he flirted with socialist or redistributionist economic schemes, Paine retained a healthy skepticism about taxation.

Note his use of the word ‘commerce’ in the text above: when the private sector is not fettered by taxation, prosperity and political liberty are the natural results.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

When Citizens Don’t Know That They’ve Been Robbed: Income Tax Withholding

Income taxes were first widely inflicted on American citizens after the passage of the sixteenth amendment in 1913, but in the early 1920s, income taxes were substantially reduced, freeing low-income and middle-income families from the burden.

The beginning of WW2 justified, perhaps, increased revenue to the federal government. In 1942, Congress decided to increase income taxes and expand them to those working-class families.

The choice of income tax, instead of sales tax or value-added tax, was fateful. The tax was intended to fund the war, which ended in 1945, but has continued for almost a century.

The damage caused by any tax is the impoverishment of citizens by means of government confiscation. But income tax, as structured in the United States, inflicts still other harms both to the individual and to the nation as a whole.

The reintroduction of income tax to the lower and middle classes was, as historian Amity Shlaes write, confused, chaotic, and traumatizing:

The new rates were law. But Americans were ill-prepared to face a new and giant tax bill. A Gallup poll from the period showed that only some 5 million of the 34 million people who were subject to the tax for the first time were saving to make their payment. In those days, March 15, not April 15, was the nation’s annual tax deadline.

To get citizens to hand their wages to the government, the withholding system was devised. Workers would, under this system, not receive their full wages.

Employers would pay part of the wages to the worker, and part to the government. In this way, the citizens would not ‘feel’ the loss of their wages, because they would never have received those dollars in the first place.

The ‘withholding’ system is a cruel deception, because it acclimates workers to lower wages. Rather than paying taxes, the wage earners never even receive their full pay.

The government become a trap which intercepts salaries on their way from the employer to the employee.

To be sure, the numbers remain the same whether a ‘withholding’ system is used, or whether the workers receive their pay and then send a fraction of it to the government as a tax payment.

But while the numbers remain the same, the psychology is quite different. In political science, perception is often more important than reality.

Over the decades, American workers have become so accustomed to confiscatory taxes that they are not at all surprised when they are hired for at a stated wage and then receive merely 70% or 80% of that stated amount.

This passive tolerance of theft is damaging to many aspects of the economy, including the relationship between employers, employees, and labor unions. It is also damaging to the political system as it fosters a submissive resignation to a greedy and thieving government.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Power of Text: The Declaration of Independence

The document which created the United States as a sovereign territory with its own self-determining government was also the document which contained within itself the seeds of liberty for future generations. That document was the Declaration of Independence, famously dated July 4, and it not only created a free and independent nation, but rather it also freed slaves and gave full legal equality to women, among its other achievements.

When that document was signed in 1776, actually a few days before July 4, it made the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage inevitable. By 1863, slavery would be a thing of the past, and by 1869, women would be legal and acknowledged voters.

(Many textbooks give the impression that woman began voting in 1920 in the United States. In fact, approximately 75% of women were voting before then.)

The debates and discussions of the 1850s show how the Declaration of Independence had made the end of slavery a historical inevitability. Lincoln’s drive toward abolition was fueled by the text of that document, as historian Mark Levin writes:

Many decades after America’s founding, Abraham Lincoln relied heavily on the Declaration of Independence and the principles embedded in it to provide the essential moral justifications for liberty, equality, and, of course, ending slavery - the natural and equal rights of the individual. Lincoln revered the Declaration and repeatedly quoted and referenced it in his speeches, debates, and writings before and after he became president.

Texts from the 1770s show that it was not merely an opinion or preference, among the Americans in general and among the representatives at the Continental Congress, but rather an explicit goal that slavery be ended. Lincoln was able to apply their words to achieve that objective.

He used it again and again as a cudgel against the proslavery forces and slavery accommodationists. For example, on August 17, 1858, in Lewistown, Illinois, Lincoln delivered a powerful speech during his campaign for the U.S. Senate against Stephen A. Douglas, in which he verbally brandished the Declaration in his condemnation of slavery.

Lincoln had dedicated himself, his political party, and his career to the abolition of slavery. Although his speeches remain admired for their brilliance, he used the words of others - the words of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, James Otis, Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, etc. - to free the slaves.

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 is an organic outgrowth of the Declaration of Independence. The end of slavery was contained, if latently, in the text of July 4, 1776.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Roaring Twenties: How They Emerged from the Previous Decade

To understand the 1920s, one must first take a look at the years leading up to them. Ordinary citizens in the years from 1913 to 1920 in the United States were burdened with high taxes and shackled with regulations which limited their individual actions.

People in the 1920s could have a feeling of liberty because they were coming out of an era in which civil rights and personal self-determination had been restricted. As historian R.J. Unstead writes,

For many Americans, theirs was a society based on freedom and equality of opportunity.

From 1913 to 1920, President Wilson had introduced segregation into various offices within the federal government - offices which had previously been desegregated and integrated. The 1920s saw advances in civil rights for African-Americans.

Woodrow Wilson had also been enthusiastic in his support of the KKK. It is shocking to realize that a president of the United States would openly support the Ku Klux Klan. He promoted the film The Birth of a Nation and called the Klan a “glorious” organization.

Wilson also mocked President Theodore Roosevelt, who had invited leading Black citizens to the White House and appointed Blacks to major federal offices. Wilson reversed the gains which African-Americans had made prior to 1913.

In 1920, Americans elected a new president, Warren G. Harding, who took office in March 1921. Harding undid many of Wilson’s racist actions.

President Harding died suddenly in August 1923, but his successor, President Calvin Coolidge, continued working with Blacks on various civil rights issues.

When the KKK pressured Coolidge for support, he rejected such bullying, and openly mocked the Klan in his campaign slogans. He further irritated the Klan by becoming the first U.S. president to give a commencement address at a historically Black university.

Aside from racial questions, the 1920s saw other benefits for ordinary citizens. American benefitted from a balanced middle course between isolationism and an overly-ambitious internationalism, as R.J. Unstead reports:

They had rejected Woodrow Wilson’s dream that they should take on world leadership and sort out the troubles of a ruined Europe. What America wanted was a return to “normalcy”, to the task of building a free and prosperous society. “The business of the United States is business,” declared President Coolidge.

During the 1920s, the United States would work with Europe as a partner, not a boss. “By 1921, Americans had turned their backs” on Wilson’s hope that America would manage Europe.

If America had attempted to organize and direct Europe, it would have received the anger and contempt of other nations, it would have spent huge sums of money, it would have been dragged into regional wars, and it would have had to convince both Americans and Europeans that America had a moral right to supervise the rest of the world.

Wilson’s dreams had been too ambitious.

Coolidge, by contrast, worked with the Europeans on initiatives like the Kellogg-Briand Pact and the Dawes Plan, both of which averted the looming possibility of war.

The Kellogg-Briand Pact created diplomatic opportunities for nations to resolve disagreements without war, and the Dawes Plan healed economic problems which would have led to war. 1920s enjoyed not only civil rights and peace, but also prosperity.

Business boomed in the twenties. Income per head increased by a quarter; prices came down and wages went up, so that luxuries like cars, refrigerators and radios became necessities.

Economic innovations like purchases made on the “installment plan,” called “hire-purchase” in England, fueled growth. The Harding and Coolidge administrations lowered taxes, reduced the federal government’s spending, and reduced the national debt.

Lower tax rates left workers with more money to enjoy consumer goods. Working-class families could afford the new technologies of the era: telephones, radios, electric lights, and phonographs.

The twenties were prosperous years in the United States, output increased at a tremendous rate and wages were the highest in the world.

Blue-collar industrial workers were not poor: there was not a large income difference between the working class and the middle class. The upper end of the working class was, in fact, part of the middle class.

Reduced regulations created more jobs and better-paying jobs. “This was the era,” Unstead explains,

when skyscrapers changed the skyline of American cities, when films, jazz, sensational papers and the drama of Prohibition added to the excitement of life.

Prohibition was a leftover from the ‘Progressive’ movement of earlier years. Approved in 1919 and taking effect in 1920, it was clearly a policy failure within a year or two. One political task during the 1920s was to end Prohibition. The anti-Prohibition movement grew during the the decade, and Prohibition ended in 1933.