|Arts, Books & Culture
Inside the Belly
of the Statist Beast
by Steven Miller
hen one looks back at the century- and- a- half- long chain of illegalities that is the story of the Internal Revenue Service, it is easy to feel dispirited and doubt the agency will ever disappear.
But one of the important lessons of Charles Adams remarkable and fascinating new book is that no tax systemincome-based, tariff-based, or excise-basedis forever.
Adams, a lawyer, tax consultant and independent scholar with the Cato Institute, recounts in Those Dirty Rotten Taxes: The Tax Revolts That Built America, what might be called the hidden history of taxation tyrannies . . . and the revolts against them.
One admirable example from the book, among many, is Adams account of the start of the American Civil War. Richly documented and convincingly argued, his Chapter 11"What on Earth Is the North Fighting For?"completely dispels the murky puzzlement on the question always left behind by the vacuous accounts taught in modern government-run schools.
The pat answer to that question, of course, is widely known: Lincoln wanted to "preserve the Union." But what does that mean? Why was it so important to keep the South, against its will, inside the federal tent?
Majority opinion in the North in early 1861, as the South was seceding, had been to let Dixie go its own way in peace. Yet the Northern states soon would knowingly choose to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of Northern (and Southern) lives and mountains of treasure. Why?
Perhaps abolition of slavery was a cause great enough to justify, on the scales of the Almighty, the great carnage and tragic waste of the War Between the States. But that was never the motivation of the Northern states. Nor was it that of Lincolnwho, in his first inaugural, went so far as to offer the South his support for a constitutional amendment to guarantee human slavery in the Southern states forever.
So politically at least, the slavery issue at the time was largely beside the point. What was central non- negotiable between both North and Southwas the joint question of taxation and free trade.
Adams notes that for 45 years the South had been suffering under and fighting against Northern high-tariff tax philosophy. Now, however, a new and even more extreme tariff party, the Republicans, had taken control of not only the Union presidency but congress too. And both branches of government were already rushing to impose the Morrill Tariffa new "Tariff of Abominations."
This new tariff raised duties on iron goods, for instance, to 50 percent. The basic scheme was to prevent English manufacturers from competing in the American markets and thus allow Northern manufacturersvia their government-awarded advantageto soak all Americans and especially the agricultural South.
"In every measure that the ingenuity of avarice could devise," wrote a Southern author in 1866, expressing the view of the now-defunct Confederacy, "the North [had] exacted from the South a tribute, which it could only pay at the expense and in the character of an inferiour in the Union."
So, after decades of such treatment and with the imminent prospect of its even more extreme escalation, the Southern states had had enough. On March 11, 1861, seven days after Lincoln was inaugurated, the Confederate Constitution was adopted.
Almost immediately Northern opinionas reflected in the editorial columns of Northern newspapersbegan turning sharply toward war. Why?
Consider the New York Times. "For months [its] leading economic editor had been writing that secession was no threat to Northern prosperity and commerce, and inaction was the best course for the government," notes Adams. "But on March 22 and 23, 1861, he reversed himself with a demand that the federal government At once shut up every Southern port, destroy its commerce, and bring utter ruin on the Confederate states "
What Northern newspapers had suddenly grasped, says Adams, was that the new Confederate constitution had created what was essentially a free-trade zone in Dixie, one which promised to destroy utterly the tariff-based economic hegemony Northern commercial interests had long enjoyed not only over the South, but all Americans. Such a bloody serious development could not be permitted to occur.
A million casualties later, it was not.
Charles Adams work rescues from obscurity hosts of important but little-known tax rebellions. From antiquity through the European Enlightenment to the resurgent Gestapo that operates inside modern-day Germanys tax bureaucracy, he engagingly maps the darkness inside the belly of the statist beast. uSteven Miller is managing editor of Nevada Journal.