Progressive Taxes, Founding Fathers and Political Cartoons

The cartoon below is yet another demonstration of political discussion: it offers essential truth and yet essentially it does not.  Truth often depends upon what words are used in the larger discussion.

Constitution and Obama and Madidson

The founders were very divided on this subject.

While both Jefferson and Madison were libertarians, Jefferson believed in progressive taxes (in anti-govspeak: redistribution, which = Jefferson’s progressive taxation). Madison was a minimalist libertarian. He did not even want a Bill of Rights. He felt it to be totally unnecessary. Madison was a ‘things will somehow work themselves out’ libertarian.

Yet, perhaps in deference to Jefferson’s views, Madison seems to have had no problem at the time with writing Article 1.8 into the Constitution, that is the abhorred ‘general welfare’ clause.  Every version of the draft Constitution includes the phrase.

It is usually conservatives that point out that the preamble contains reference to the ‘general welfare’ but that it was just an introductory phrase to the enumerated powers. Yet it also appears in Article 1.8.

This clause and wording caused great argument almost from the moment that the Constitution was adopted. Some 40 years after the Constitution’s ratification, there was still debate as to what it all meant, which Madison attempted to explain in a lengthy letter.

Madison wrote a letter on November 27, 1830 explaining the logic behind this clause. Madison’s short answer: we carried it over from the Articles of Confederation. Madison’s contraview fellow travellers, beginning with the Washington Administration and Alexander Hamilton, argued that while the clause may have been carried over it was also revised to include the powers of direct taxation. The Hamiltonian view was that the Constitution’s drafters had intent that gave the federal government unique powers.

The discussion and the political cartoon above are about taxation, aka redistribution of wealth.

Even Jefferson and Madison, two libertarians and very close friends debated.

Jefferson and Madison corresponded often on the topic of natural rights, property rights and the role of government.

>>> From Jefferson’s letter to Madison, 1785:

“…Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation. …”

— 28 Oct 1785, pre-Constitution (written/adopted 1777/78)

Madison was a bit slow to write back to Jefferson (then in France) but did so in 1786. His response to Jefferson was essentially ‘there will be poor always’.

>>> From Madison’s letter to Jefferson, 1786:

“Your reflections on the idle poor of Europe, form a valuable lesson to the Legislators of every Country, and particularly of a new one. I hope you will enable yourself before you return to America to compare with this description of people in France the Condition of the indigent part of other communities in Europe where the like causes of wretchedness exist in a less degree. I have no doubt that the misery of the lower classes will be found to abate wherever the Government assumes a freer aspect, & the laws favor a subdivision of property. Yet I suspect that the difference will not fully account for the comparative comfort of the Mass of people in the United States. Our limited population has probably as large a share in producing this effect as the political advantages which distinguish us. A certain degree of misery seems inseparable from a high degree of populousness.”

— 17 Jun 1786

2 thoughts on “Progressive Taxes, Founding Fathers and Political Cartoons”

  1. I don’t know if T. Jefferson ever used the term “libertarian” to describe his political leanings but he sure sounds like a socialist in his letter. Probably comes as a shock to libertarians and others of their ilk.

    1. Jefferson did not call for the redistribution of wealth, just for the exempting from taxation for a given income or wealth level … although for some folks that is the same thing.

      Compared to most of the Founders, Jefferson was easily the most flexible-minded, or what you have often called a buoy. Ben Franklin would have been his runner up in this category.

      In almost any segment of political opinion Jefferson would fall into today’s category of being libertarian … although he may well have also fit in well with Democrats that we would also call Blue Dogs.

      Jefferson did make his choice known: he didn’t like political parties at all and believed that they, like churches and religion, only brought woe upon us.

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