When I was interviewed by an American streaming service yesterday, a thought crossed my mind and I blurted it out in what William F. Buckley used to call an “encephalophonic” fashion – from the mind straight to the mouth.
Have you noticed, I said, that Americans use the word ‘taxpayer’ more widely than the British do?
An American is likely to say ‘taxpayer’ where a Briton will probably say ‘citizen’ or, if he is more attuned to our constitution, ‘subject’. The word ‘taxpayer’ will usually appear in British speech only when taxation is the specific subject under discussion.
Since words often have cultural meanings that go beyond the purely semantic ones, this difference is worth pondering. For it suggests that Americans are more likely to define citizenship and government in purely economic terms.
I blame John Locke for that. He was one of those prophets who found honour in a country other than his own. For, though Locke was British, it was the Americans who took him more seriously.
Lockean notions flash through not just the American founding documents, but through the country’s entire history. In our context, Locke believed, wrongly, that representation was the only legitimising factor of taxation.
Hence one of the more thunderous slogans of the American revolt was “no taxation without representation”. That’s transparently nonsensical, for no state, democratic or any other, can survive without taxation. Thus that slogan is fully synonymous with “no state without representation”, which is demonstrably false.
The revolt was triggered by Britain trying to extract from the 13 colonies a tax in the overall amount of £78,000. To put this in perspective, it cost Britain more than £200,000 a year to maintain her troops in North America after the French and Indian wars.
In fact, at the time of their revolutionary afflatus, American colonists were paying lower taxes than residents of Britain proper, many of whom weren’t represented either. Bostonians even got their British tea at half the price Londoners paid – this in spite of the tea tax that inspired the 1773 Boston Tea Party.
As subsequent events have shown, the colonists also got another thing wrong: the relationship between representation and that other key theme of Lockean philosophy, property rights.
The word ‘rights’, natural, inalienable or otherwise, ranks right up with ‘liberty’ and its numerous cognates in offering an endless potential for abuse. In fact, one of the less pleasant aspects of modernity is trying to pass appetites, desires and aspirations as rights.
While property rights are more valid than almost any others claimed by various demagogues, they aren’t without an offensive potential either. This potential is realised when they are raised to an absolute, as they tend to be wherever post-Enlightenment liberalism has triumphed, especially in the Anglophone world.
American post-Enlightenment thinkers have always accentuated property acquisition and protection as the cornerstone of liberty. Even these days, American political scientists emphasise protection of property more than do even conservatives in Europe who still, for old times’ sake, tend to regard it as only one of many prerequisites for civilised society.
Yet Locke only talked about preserving a man’s “life, liberty and estate against the injuries and attempts of other men” – the rule of law, in other words. But this wasn’t how it came out in the Declaration of Independence.
The Founding Fathers chose a less precise term ‘happiness’, preceded by ‘the pursuit of’, a combination they declared to be an ‘unalienable’ right. ‘Happiness’ was at the time a popular shibboleth of political discourse, but, as Alexander Hamilton explained later, the Founders used it in the narrow meaning of Locke’s ‘estate’.
However, the belief that representation would protect property rights was proved wrong. For universal franchise ineluctably promotes centralism at the expense of localism. I could explain why that is so, but anyone with eyes to see will know that it is so.
A central state thus empowered will always be tempted to increase its power by taking on more and more functions. That will require higher and higher taxes.
Thus immediately after the Revolution, taxes began to climb in America and have continued their steady ascent to this day. That may suggest that the two key mottos of the American Revolution, representation and property rights, just may be at odds.
Raising property rights to an absolute also provided the Confederacy with a valid argument in favour of slavery. The rebels had ironclad logic on their side: a slave in the South was chattel property whose legal standing was on a par with that of livestock, which is to say nonexistent.
Therefore any attempt to emancipate the slaves was a gross violation of Lockean property rights. On its own terms the South was thus as justified to secede from the Union as the Founders had been to declare their independence from England. Those terms, however, were invalid on a level deeper than that plumbed by the Enlightenment apostles of secular liberty.
The interesting dichotomy is that in a country constituted along Lockean and Enlightenment, which is to say atheist, principles, some 40 per cent of the population identify themselves as church-goers (as compared to about five per cent in Britain).
However, having discarded their faith, Britons have retained more political vestiges of Christendom, such as monarchy, aristocracy and an established church whose prelates sit in the House of Lords. And that’s why British conservative thinkers, unless they happen to be economists, don’t routinely talk about British subjects as taxpayers.
“What’s in a word?” asked Shakespeare. Well, a good chunk of political philosophy is one possible answer to that.