America, a relatively young nation with young cities, is largely built upon aged ideas and ancient civilizations. The early Roman Republic was in many ways the spiritual and legal forebear to the United States and Great Britain. Many of the systems of government we have now were derived from the Roman Republic, from term limits to checks and balances of those elected to highest office. One significant difference to America and modern Britain was its relationship to the military, where individual governors and senators were tasked with raising their own armies. As the Republic grew older soldiers’ loyalty more and more lied not with the Republic itself, but with the generals. Anyone familiar with elections and electoral trends knows that voters vote with their hearts and with their check books, and the politician or general who makes the voter – or soldier – feel loyalty or a thicker wallet will more likely engender loyalty and feelings of affection. So long as governors and generals remained loyal to the idea of a republic, the republic could survive.
In the late second and first centuries BCE generals became more like modern rock stars than servants of the Republic, and their egos correspondingly grew with it. This ultimately led to a general so egotistical and powerful that he disobeyed the mandate of the senate and crowned himself ruler. That man’s name was Julius Caesar. Within three decades of his ascension to supremacy his heir, Octavian, had eliminated all rivals of his own and established a new order of governance – one with a supreme head, a first citizen among all Romans, and the idea of an elected body with checks and balances was all but gone, save occasional lip service from the Caesars. Eighteen centuries later France cast off their autocratic shackles and sought to replace it with an elected body, only to find itself ten years later under the rule of a popular general who had raised an army, engendered loyalty from his soldiers, and taken an opportunity to eliminate all rivals to crown himself emperor.
Many of our friends on the collective right are naturally suspicious of government, and there is nobility and honor in questioning the purpose or need of our government institutions. Suspicion of government’s size is good, as it provides a means for accountability at all levels of government. A maxim that has begun to permeate among certain corners on the right the last few decades is this idea that all taxation is theft; that there is no tax that is not a crime against the people of the state. Simply put, this is childish and poorly thought out. As those on the right mock Bernie Sanders and his supporters for their apparent lack of economic sense, and likely failure to understand what, exactly, supply side economics are, this immature and half baked “taxation is theft” meme should also cause eye rolls on all sides.
Following this logic, if taxation is theft and we are to repeal all forms of taxation we are left with a world where it will fall to the forces of the market to supply roads, where every road is a toll. Elected officials would need to truly be wealthy, or very much part time legislators. Firefighters and police officers would need to privatize. More glaringly, the military would be privatized. Generals operating in the free market would buy loyalty, and their celebrity would grow. Who would control a wildly popular general who has hundreds of thousands of soldiers? If a general perceived an offense against his ego what would stop him from staging a coup and crowning himself emperor? If there are no checks and balances, no ego or law large enough to compete with a celebrity then what is the end result but tyranny? This is not to say all taxes are good or necessary. For 108 years a 3% excise tax existed on long distance phone calls to pay for the Spanish-American War, a war that took place in 1898. It wasn’t repealed until 2006, and even then it was only repealed because five separate appeals courts declared it illegal. However, a wholesale repeal of all taxes because some taxes, or even most, are cumbersome and unnecessary doesn’t mean that all are cumbersome and unnecessary.
The taxation as theft meme ultimately boils down to little more than a Sparknotes level understanding of Edmund Burke and Hayek, where skepticism of government is the only principle learned, and nothing of the lessons of history or realities of the modern world are considered. All taxation is theft as a guiding principle can be bandied about in a university classroom, but once it leaves the philosophical realm and enters the real world it collapses. It eventually becomes little more than young Ron Swanson’s proclaiming that Chuck E. Cheese has the perfect business model, and should in fact be how the government works. For conservatism to continue to be a serious philosophy in the West we must not allow it to be reduced to buzzwords or catchphrases, or we run the risk of letting what makes conservatism truly great, the notion that ideas and character matter, slip away.