Friday, April 20, 2007

No Representation for Taxation

A bill has passed the House of Representatives giving a seat in Congress to the nation’s capital, the District of Columbia.

According to The New York Times,

For supporters, the House vote was a victory for democracy, potentially righting a historical wrong and ending a situation of “taxation without representation” for 600,000 residents of the District of Columbia.

“This vote fulfills a promise of our democracy,” Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House speaker, said in her floor speech. “It reflects what we stand for at home and preach around the world.”

Opposition to the bill appears to be based merely on the fact that the US Constitution says that “The House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several states.” (Italics added.) Thus, it is argued, since Washington, D. C. is not a state, it should have no representative. Fears are also expressed that enactment of the bill into law would open the way for the various federal territories, such as Puerto Rico and Guam, to seek representation.

According to The Times, opponents of the bill say that a better solution “would be a constitutional amendment or for Washington to be ceded back to Maryland, so residents could vote for representatives and senators.”

It’s a sad commentary on the state of our Republic that no one seems to be pointing out that what is involved here is the nature of the proper relationship between the citizens of a country and its government. The United States was founded on the principle that individuals possess unalienable rights that governments are instituted to protect, and that among these rights is the right to keep the property one has earned.

The principle of “no taxation without representation” applies to the context in which those who have earned property strive to keep it by means of securing the subsidiary right to elect, and thus control, the members of the legislature that can impose taxes on them.

The overwhelming majority of the citizens of Washington, D. C. are employees of the federal government or their family members, or are otherwise supported by the federal government. As such, they are not taxpayers, but rather the recipients of taxes paid by other people. Whatever taxes they nominally pay are merely a deduction from the tax proceeds they have received. All of the income they obtain and keep is from the proceeds of taxation.

Denial of the right to vote to citizens of Washington, D. C., serves in some measure to protect the taxpaying citizens of the United States from the depredations of those who live off their taxes and who would like to tax them still more.

Of course, the historical reason that Washington, D. C. does not have representation in Congress was not in order to deprive government employees of the right to vote. Such protection was not deemed necessary in an environment in which the only sources of federal revenue were tariffs and the sale of land. The historical reason was that the federal government was viewed in important respects as subsidiary to the states and not as their equal.

Nevertheless, it is certainly a good thing for the rest of the country that the citizens of Washington, D. C. do not have the vote. It implicitly serves to support the fundamental principle that the disposition of an individual’s property should be decided by him, not jointly by him and thieves who want to rob him.

The possession of the right to vote by government employees and by anyone else who receives a substantial portion of his wealth or income from the government is in fact giving legal power to those who receive the wealth of others to proceed to take that wealth. It is literally giving the vote to thieves.

That may be Nancy Pelosi’s conception of democracy and of what the United States stands for. But it is the kind of democracy that is present in a lynch mob. And what the United States actually stands for, and should stand for, is the rights of the individual against the mob—against the entire rest of the world if need be.

Hopefully, the Senate will prevent the House’s bill from becoming law. Representation in the House of Representatives for Washington, D. C. and its mass of tax recipients would not end a situation of “taxation without representation.” This is because, as we've seen, the citizens of Washington, D.C., do not pay taxes; they receive them. All that giving them representation would do would be to provide additional representation for advocates of additional taxation and thus further weaken the power of taxpayers to defend their right to keep their own property. As such, it would be directly contrary to the principle of no taxation without representation—that is, of course, representation for those who have earned the wealth being taxed, not those who want to tax it.

This article is copyright © 2007, by George Reisman. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce and distribute it electronically and in print, other than as part of a book and provided that mention of the author’s web site is included. (Email notification is requested.) All other rights reserved. George Reisman is the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1996) and is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics.