Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Right Angle Club 2012
This ends the ninetieth year for the club operating under the name of the Right Angle Club of Philadelphia. Before that, and for an unknown period, it was known as the Philadelphia Chapter of the Exchange Club.

..Tax and Fiscal Issues in the Constitution, Morris (1)
For some founding fathers, monetary issues were all that mattered.

Fighting About Taxes So Soon?

THE Constitutional Convention convened in secrecy, so the reasoning behind important provisions are sometimes unwritten. That is particularly true of taxation. Wars created the main reason for abrupt tax increases in the Eighteenth century, whereas present non-war expenditures are larger and steadier. For most people in any era, taxes have always been their main cash expense, but taxes are no longer synonymous with wars. An example of the way the problem has transformed over the centuries appears in Madison's notes, where Rufus King asks What is the meaning of a Direct Tax. The befuddled assembly answered with silence. No one present seemed to know, but since direct taxes were discouraged, perhaps it didn't matter.

{top quote}

Article 1,

Section 8.
The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts, and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;
. . . . To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

. . . .

Section 2:
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

. . . .

Section 9.
. . . . No Capitation or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in Proportion to the Census or enumeration herein before directed to be taken.
. . . . 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Amendment 16 - Status of Income Tax Clarified (Ratified 2/3/1913)
The Congress shall have the power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration. {bottom quote}

The Constitution, on Direct Taxes

It matters, of course, and leaving it unchanged suggests the Committee on Style either thought it sounded better than "taxing the states directly", or they didn't, and preferred a blurred wording. The purpose of neither changing the wording nor making further reference to direct taxes remains obscure. We are free to recognize that the two linked topics of Taxation and Congressional Representation (using a single verb and including a forceful "shall" for emphasis) announce a major trade-off was being explored, concerning a very sensitive point. The state legislatures were being asked to give up a power they had repeatedly abused, but they still had the power to refuse to ratify the proposed Constitution if the Convention started scolding them. In such a negotiation, all states immediately but privately calculate how much they are willing to pay for concessions, before being forced to take a vote. In the Eurozone negotiations currently being conducted today about a fairly similar issue, there is even deeper doubt about the actual ability of some nations to do what is being asked of them. There is thus the real reason for the Europeans to balance the financial books with something other than money. In the Eighteenth century American case, concessions on the slave trade were used as the surrogate bargaining chip. The Europeans have climate, religion, military position, language, and perhaps other things they could use, because it must be obvious to everyone that money bargaining could be conducted by accountants, with no need to involve chiefs of state. The early American experience seems to show that -- once a union is actually achieved -- income inequality between jealous states immediately began to seem less important, probably because after political union both money and people can pick up and move to a different part of the Union. Before the Union, it was all about money. Only two states fully paid their federal taxes during the Revolution, so problems collecting direct state taxes had been anticipated. To put it another way, New Yorkers do not greatly grumble about indirectly subsidizing Alabama citizens, but even today it would be politically dangerous to propose that New York State should pay a block grant outright (directly) to subsidize the state of Alabama. If enough latitude and diversity between the constituent states are allowed, however, individual persons and corporations can individually decide to move. Under those circumstances, the migration is effectively a plebiscite on the underlying governmental dispute.

An important diversion was created by trading away the tax issue in a compromise, seemingly having little to do with main concern about taxes. Madison's notes on the Convention record relatively little discussion of slavery, but there is every reason to suppose the matter was at the front of every Southern mind. Because George Mason of Virginia was known to be delaying matters for the seemingly specious reason of demanding a Bill of Rights, which even James Madison of Virginia could see no purpose to, Mason was the swing vote in the most powerful state delegation at the Convention. Mason almost jumped joyously at the potential resolution of the direct taxation problem in the form of: "Numbers of inhabitants, though not a precise standard of wealth, was sufficiently so for every substantial (i.e. Virginia) purpose." This was a considerable concession for the richest state of the thirteen to make, and it followed the ancient political advice about a trade-off that it seems to have nothing to do with the central issue in dispute. This is something the European debaters must learn: if you are at loggerheads about one issue, trade it off for something unrelated, and call it a compromise. Although Mason would undoubtedly have been gratified to escape a higher tax rate, he nevertheless rejoiced in the alternative of increased voting power by 3/5 of a vote for each slave. Since this was soon touted as the second great compromise of the Convention, he could detect the signals of a binding agreement which the South would exploit for fifty years.

{George Mason}
George Mason

At this point in the proceedings, the Convention was still in a mindset of struggling to unify thirteen sovereign republics; naturally, each one also wanted to be sure the taxation was fairly distributed. Virginia not only wanted its own definition of fair shares, but it also wanted enough power in the House of Representatives to maintain that definition. It wanted to avoid any tampering with slavery, and both demands were now agreed to. Direct taxation of the states, with its inherent apportionment issue, was not explicitly linked, but it is hard to believe it went undiscussed. Except for the District of Columbia and the Territories, which are regulated by Congress in many unique ways, Congress now has no power to impose a direct tax upon a state, or otherwise to pick tax winners and losers. Everyone agreed that Congress needed to be able to levy a limited amount of taxes "for the common defense and the General Welfare", but many delegates were uneasy about the apportionment method used in the Articles of Confederation because short of military force there was no sure way to collect them. Going to war against one of the states for non-payment of taxes must have sounded very unattractive after a recent history of having eleven of the thirteen refuse to pay them. Anyway, we had a deal with regard to slavery. And seemingly for those reasons, Congress now has no real power to impose a direct tax upon a state. Rufus King might not have needed to embarrass everyone with his revealing question if the wording meant "impose a tax directly upon a state", because the Constitution says that of course you can, but as a practical matter, of course, you won't.

At present the issue of apportionment of taxes roils the European Community, although in a slightly different form, and they must find a way to solve it. Germany is unwilling to support Greece, the Netherlands unwilling to support the Belgians, and so on. The poor nations cry "fairness" while the rich nations proclaim "merit and hard work", and it was ever thus. Our founding fathers found the solution was to forbid the taxing of nations, except in proportion to the population. That is, to shift the tax from the national level to the individual taxpayer level. Doing so will not make national jealousies disappear, but here it proved to be sufficient. Texans would still rather lose their left leg than pay taxes to support Oklahoma, but when a dust storm or drought appears, Texans are immediately generous to their neighbors in distress. Within the past decade, a Texas law professor published a law review article denouncing the unfairness of a state with twice the population being forced to pay double the taxes. George Mason would have simply smiled and said, "Of course twice as many people pay twice as much tax. And get twice as many Congressmen, too." That's called square dealing, but square dealing is often not quite enough. Some land is not quite as fertile, some people are not as well educated, one state has more seaports than the other. To bring the scales into balance, something more must be added. In that case, it's best if what is offered has nothing to do with either taxes or congressional representation. That's called diplomacy.

And let's not forget one of the features of taxes. A major reason for national taxes has always been to pay for wars. Less of one usually means less of the other.

Originally published: Sunday, July 08, 2012; most-recently modified: Friday, May 17, 2019