Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Taxes: totally like slavery. And genocide.

You've probably already seen this ad. No doubt it's making the rounds online right now. I saw it on the news last night. Obviously it's blatantly ridiculous and hurtful and wrongheaded and dilutes the seriousness of big issues like actual real-world slavery and genocide.

But it's also a great example of a popular misconception bandied about by the tea partiers and their ilk. According to their version of history, the founding fathers broke with England and established a new nation because they didn't want to pay taxes. Period. They just did not want to pay one penny in taxes. And so now when our government taxes us it's a terrible injustice akin to slavery and genocide.

So first of all, to set the record straight, the founding fathers were opposed to taxation without representation. See how that's all one package? It's not taxation. period. It's taxation without representation. In other words, you give us representatives who will reliably bring our concerns and wishes into the political decision-making process, and we're cool with the taxes. No voice in the political arena? Then no taxes. See, the founding fathers thought the two should be tied together. That's actually how it worked. For white property-owning males, that is.

I think all Americans would pretty much agree to that: taxation without representation sucks. It's rather straight-forward. Which is why it's strange that most people don't realize that for more than 5 million people in the U.S., taxation without representation is exactly the condition they are currently living under, and they will probably remain in this condition for the rest of their lives. Because they have felony convictions. Many of them have done their time and "paid their debt to society." They're "rehabilitated." Right? Except that they'll never be a full citizen again, because they'll never have a political voice again. And in a democracy, having a political voice in the form of a vote is a constitutive part of what it means to be a citizen. And paying taxes is the flip side of voting. It's the old reciprocal privileges and responsibilities that my parents used to yammer on about. Or if you're into those Existentialist types, freedom always comes with terrible responsibility, and abdicating your responsibility amounts to abdicating your freedom, and all that.

But if you're a felon in the US, you fall through the giant loophole. You get to keep the responsibility - the paying taxes bit - without the reciprocal privilege. And this, my friends, is in fact anti-American. It does defy one of the most fundamental tenets of our democracy. It also serves to maintain the status quo - in terms of both race and class - by disproportionately excluding the groups who were most vulnerable to begin with and have thus landed in a bad position with the criminal justice system. But does anyone (least of all the libertarians and tea partiers) give a shit about that? Doesn't seem like it to me. I'm not hearing any kind of public outcry. Correct me if I'm wrong...


  1. It's really hard to get anyone in this country to care about the penal system, in my opinion. I hadn't thought about the disenfranchisement issue as it relates to taxation though. It's a really good point.

  2. Anonymous6/29/2010

    A friend of mine worked for many years with a non-profit in Georgia that worked on issues relating to prisons…how the inmates were treated, etc. she said it was so hard because most people really just don’t care at all, and generally feel that felons get what they “deserve” the harsh retribution attitude so many people have in this country is so depressing. Whatever happened to mercy and justice going hand and hand?

  3. I think there's a link between our attitudes toward prisoners and the way crime has been used as a political campaign tool in America. You don't really see anything like it in other nations, and it's no coincidence that we have the highest rate of imprisonment in the world.

  4. Anonymous6/30/2010

    But the whole taxation without representation thing doesn't make a good sound bite or whip up the emotions of the crowd like "no more taxes" does. And technically most tea partiers have representation, and we pay less taxes than ever before, so clearly campaigning on truthful material just isn't their thing.

  5. miriam: That's been my experience as well. There's a lot of talk in America about how felons get what they deserve (in regards to the lifelong consequences of incarceration) while at the same time there's all this talk about rehabilitation, which is a fucking joke in our penal system. And lifelong consequences don't jive with rehabilitation, of course. Pick one or the other, folks.

  6. ...and it goes deeper than that, of course. We have this bizarre, often contradictory mishmash of justificatory theories in place for our correctional system in the U.S. When you teach on this topic you lay out the main theories of punishment: deterrence, retribution, rehabilitation, restitution, etc. and then you start looking at how we justify our prison system, and it's a patchwork of often contradictory explanations. And this kind of thing irritates me to no end, because I want people to be consistent and logical. But in these kinds of cases most people think nothing of offering totally contradictory theoretical justifications as the mood suits them, and pointing this out to them does nothing - they seem to be ok with having a thoroughly and visibly incoherent worldview. Because it comes down to convenience, and it's simply more convenient to throw a whole segment of the population to the wolves that to really deal with the inequities and injustices involved. And more often than not maintaining the injustices preserves your own privilege...

  7. Oh...this is super interesting. I've never thought about the way we conceptualize the purpose of prison before. Maybe that's a function of our system. We just shove people out of sight so we don't have to think about it or deal with their problems.

  8. Wow, great post. It never even occurred to me to think about this but you are totally right. Thanks for giving me something to think about!

  9. Let's not forget that felons - most of whom are just drug "offenders" who NEVER SHOULD HAVE SPENT ONE DAY IN PRISON - are the corporatist's bread and butter. There is actual slavery going on in the US of A that virtually no one knows about: corporate prison labour. And the scariest thing is that ONE company is running the whole show, with privatized prisons replacing government owned facilities starting in Texas and in recent years branching out into the whole US. Private prisons don't have to obey laws - and if they break them, no one notices and most of those who do notice either don't care or think they can do nothing about it so just pretend it's not happening. This is part of why there is such a hue and cry about illegal Mexicans nowadays. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) doesn't want people around who will do cheap labour when what they want to do is have the country's worst jobs being done by people for NO pay. Imagine how easy it is for slimy corrupt cops to plant drugs on anyone fitting an "undesireable profile" - bingo! There's another brand new slave. It's not even like the old days, when people had to purchase slaves!

  10. Anonymous9/09/2010

    Taxation is a flawed concept and I like to think that in the future we will eventually move away from it and toward a voluntary-society based on charity and not forced charity (taxation).

    I like to believe that if you give people the chance to do something good, by theirself, without force, they would gladly do it.

    This is known as "Voluntaryism"... I also note that government could exist with a voluntary-society.. so not all voluntaryists are anarchists.