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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/4890/jefferson-on-redistribution/

Jefferson on Redistribution

April 10, 2006 by

What drives domestic politics today is government income redistribution. It forms the core of virtually every fiscal battle, since every policy that gives some what they don’t pay for must be funded from others’ pockets.

That gets highlighted during income tax season. The lowest 40% of earners now pay negative income taxes as a group (largely due to the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit). That forces higher earners to shoulder the entire income tax burden.

Unfortunately, the underlying premise behind these disproportionate burdens–that it is an appropriate federal government role to take from some to give to others of its choosing–is a world apart from the founding principles of this country. No one ever said it better than Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the most prolific founding father on the topic of our rights and liberty, whose April 13 birthday many Americans now “celebrate” by puzzling over their tax forms.

“The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents.”
“The true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen in his person and property and in their management.”

“…rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our own will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law,’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.”

“…we have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious. I believe it might be much simplified to the relief of those who maintain it.”

“…a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government…”

“If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them, they must become happy.”

“The policy of the American government is to leave their citizens free, neither restraining nor aiding them in their pursuits.”

“Our wish is that…[there may be] maintained that state of property, equal or unequal, which results to every man from his own industry or that of this fathers.”

“To take from one because it is thought that his own industry and that of his father’s has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association–the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.”

Thomas Jefferson leaves no doubt that the United States was not established to forcibly take from some for others, as that would violate both citizens’ liberty and property. Our Constitution reflects that same view, containing not a single word authorizing federal income redistribution, but several clauses, which, if taken seriously, rule it out. The General Welfare clause is one example. When Washington takes your money against your will for others, you are harmed. When your welfare is reduced, how can the general welfare-which must apply to you as well-be advanced?

April tax time commentary usually focuses on the cost and inconvenience. It ignores that many are exempted from those costs, forcing the tab for their government services onto others. But Thomas Jefferson made clear that a policy of imposing such disproportionate burdens is inconsistent with core American principles. Neither he, nor our other founders, would say that the unequal burdens imposed by the tax code, so that some, via the federal government, can acquire benefits they did not earn, reflects our founding ideals or our founding documents.


A.B. Dada April 10, 2006 at 2:43 pm

I’m a fan of the quotes but not of the man. No matter what Jefferson said, he still created government programs and restrictions that went against what he said.

“Do as I say, not as a do”? I’m not so sure if I’d trust any politician — even one that may have admitted to making mistakes during their power.

BillG (not Gates) April 10, 2006 at 3:26 pm

Gary Galles wrote:

“Thomas Jefferson leaves no doubt that the United States was not established to forcibly take from some for others, as that would violate both citizens’ liberty and property.”

if that were true how do you explain this quote then?

“Another means of silently lessening the inequality of [landed] 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 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. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed” (Thomas Jefferson, The Republic of Letters, p. 390).

M1EK April 10, 2006 at 4:46 pm

You have dishonestly implied that the total federal tax burden of those 40%, or at least a large number of same, is negative, and that’s obviously not true. Payroll taxes are high enough on these people that most of those 40% still pay more in taxes than they are refunded by the EITC, and the “payroll tax” is effectively nothing more than a regressive chunk of income tax thanks to the transition of Social Security and Medicare to “welfare for old people” anyways.

banker April 10, 2006 at 8:26 pm

Jefferson had slaves, right? How does that rank in terms of negative or positive taxes?

tarran April 10, 2006 at 8:27 pm

M1EK, my old friend! How good to see that you have kept your lovable debating techniques of distemperate kvetching and wild accusations. I had truly missed you. While you are here, I strongly encourage you to kick back with the copy of “Man Economy and State” that is posted online here, and “What Has The Government Done to our Money”, both enjoyable reads, or perhaps catch a couple of Walter Block’s lectures which are both educational and a hoot.

I should point out that the Social Security tax, accursed as it may be is not the same as the Federal Income tax. The author was quite clear that he was speaking of the latter only.

However, your point about the injustice of those taxes is, I think, widely accepted on this board. Mises himself pointed out:

The policies advocated by the welfare school remove the incentive to saving on the part of private citizens. On the one hand, the measures directed toward a curtailment of big incomes and fortunes seriously reduce or destroy entirely the wealthier peoples power to save. On the other hand, the sums which people with moderate incomes previously contributed to capital accumulation are manipulated in such a way as to channel them into the lines of consumption.

Wild Pegasus April 10, 2006 at 9:49 pm

I should point out that the Social Security tax, accursed as it may be is not the same as the Federal Income tax. The author was quite clear that he was speaking of the latter only.

And what’s the point of that? Why talk about taxes and ignore the whole system? Galles wants to pretend that the those tyrannical poor people are oppressing those noble rich people – a proposition about as grounded in reality as young earth creationism.

- Josh

tarran April 10, 2006 at 10:25 pm

Perhaps because Income Tax papers are due in a few days, whereas there is no such analog for Social Security Taxes?

Anyway where do you get the notion that he says the poor are oppressing the rich? It’s more of the class of people who receive payments from the public treasury benefitting from taking money from others including those earning a lot of money.

BTW the rich I believe are those who own a lot of wealth, the income tax taxes those who earn a lot of money in some period of time, which is not the same. Thus a rich man with billions of dollars worth of stuff could conceivably pay no tax because he didn’t earn a dime, whereas a young single mother on welfare a year ago could pay immense taxes because her first book is selling like hot-cakes, and she made $300,000 last year. In that case, isn’t the mom carrying a disproportionate share of the burden while the billionaire is not?

To be honest this seems like a quest to find fault with Mr Galles for the sake of finding fault. If one were expected to condemn a whole sector of state interventionism whenever one wanted to attack a narrow slice within the sector it would make for poorer, longer articles.

Of course, you are welcome to write your own essay correcting the deficiencies of Mr Galles’ post.

Allen April 11, 2006 at 6:24 am


…M1EK does make a valid point on the ‘selective’ use of tax-burden data on lower-income groups.

Rarely are ‘PayRoll Taxes’ included in overall media comparisons of the tax-burden on high & low income groups. They should be !

I’ve yet to find clear statistics that combine Income-Tax & PayRoll-Tax rates for the varying American income groups.

However, the “Tax Policy Center” seems to have the best online data:


Does the Mises Center have such a clear comparison of full tax burdens ??

billwald April 11, 2006 at 9:49 am

‘Thomas Jefferson leaves no doubt that the United States was not established to forcibly take from some for others, as that would violate both citizens’ liberty and property.” ‘

Wasn’t it established for the purpose of stealing from the Indian People?

Curt Howland April 11, 2006 at 7:33 pm

As much fun as it is to thrash Dead White Males, I would give my eye teeth to return to their level of “excessive” tax burden!

lorenzo sleakes April 12, 2006 at 8:16 am

To follow up on what tarran says above: Wealth is not the same as income.

When for example we penalize the carpenter who builds 2 extra bedrooms so as to give 1 of the bedrooms to the homeless, this as Nozick would say, is a kind of forced labor. Forced labor may be justifiable to protect basic freedoms (like in a Military Draft) but Jefferson clearly says that it is not justifiable to penalize the industry of one person to pay for another.

However, wealth distribution may be justifiable where the wealth that is distributed is not a creation of labor. There are many examples of this: George’s rent on unimproved land value is one. Others are: a tax on oil extraction, a tax on carbon consumption and pollution, a tax on government granted monopolies, and even an asset tax (like banks charge interest) on holding cash.

BillG (not Gates) April 12, 2006 at 9:04 am

spot on Lorenzo…

the natural opportunities afforded by nature are not individual wealth because no human labor is involved but rather commonwealth.

whomever encloses the natural benefits of the commonwealth FORCES a legal and monetary obligation on those being excluded (costs are shifted onto society) that can only be satisfied by violating their absolute right to their labor and thus to self-ownership itself.

BillG (not Gates) April 12, 2006 at 9:07 am

Lorenzo wrote:

“wealth distribution may be justifiable where the wealth that is distributed is not a creation of labor.”

BillG responds:

the justification is to protect the absolute rights that those being excluded by the enclosure to their labor.

so infact georgists are strengthening property rights rather than weakening them…

real estate person October 25, 2006 at 5:07 am

I should point out that the Social Security tax, accursed as it may be is not the same as the Federal Income tax. The author was quite clear that he was speaking of the latter only.

I will agree that he was only talking about the federal income tax. But it seems foolish to talk about redistribution and then only talk about one tax. It seems if we are going to talk about redistribution between classes we need to look at federal income taxes, social security taxes, sales taxes, and property taxes. The last two of these are both regressive. Personally as my income has increased my effective tax rate has decreased. I am not saying the combination of all taxes is regressive. But simply if we look at the cumlative effect of all taxes they are less progressive than than seem when we just look at income taxes.

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