Friday, April 17, 2009

Weak Tea

Tax protesters draw a faulty analogy with the legacy of the American Revolution

British Prime Minister Lord North had reason to feel satisfied with himself: He had two big problems on his hands, and a solution that he believed would address both. One headache was the East India company, which was beset by financial problems and was appealing to the government to save it from bankruptcy (you might think of it as the AIG of its day). The other was the fractiousness of Great Britain's North American colonies, which were making all kinds of trouble over new taxes imposed in the decade following the Seven Years War (1756-63), taxes which the colonists said were unfair because they had no representation in Parliament. A number of these taxes had been repealed in response to colonial pressure -- which included highly successful boycotts of British goods -- but the North administration believed it was important to affirm the principle of finding some way to assert its control over the colonies in a way that would not stiffen their resistance.

The solution was premium tea. The East India company was awash with it -- which, meant, in effect, that the British government was awash with it. North's idea was to sell the tea to the Americans at a steep discount (think $5 cartons of cigarettes, or $25 iPods). The catch, if you could even call it that, was that some portion of the price of those smokes or tunes was actually a tax. Surely, Lord North reasoned (despite some voices that warned him otherwise), the Americans would not be so foolish and spiteful to reject a very good deal.

Of course, he was wrong: for many of the colonists, a principle was at stake. Some of those colonists felt so passionately, in fact, that when ships of tea arrived in New York, Philadelphia and Charleston in late 1773, opposition was strong enough that if forced agents for the company to resign, for the ships to turn back, or both. In Boston, however, Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson insisted that the ship there be allowed to deliver its cargo. Before that could happen, however, a group of hooligans who jokingly disguised themselves as savages (a.k.a. Native Americans), raided the ship and tossed the cargo into Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773. As we all know, this event became sarcastically known as the Boston Tea Party, and the imperial crackdown that followed led directly to the American Revolution.

And it is this memory of the Boston Tea Party that hundreds of thousands of protesters in hundreds of cities invoked at their to "TEA parties" ("tea" as an acroynm for "Taxed Enough Already") on Wednesday, also known as "Tax Day," since it was the deadline to file returns with the Internal Revenue Service. These people saw themselves as upholding a venerable American tradition, since the founding of the nation was rooted in a tax revolt. "A revolution is brewing," reads the slogan on the national organization's web site.

Yet the analogy they invoke is flawed at best. For one thing, the Boston Tea Party was not about taxation, per se, but rather taxation without representation -- something which, whatever our unhappiness with replaceable officials, citizens of this government currently have. Moreover, it was never about the
amount the colonists were taxed; in fact, in the face of Crown efforts to pay the salaries of judicial officials, colonial legislatures insisted that they, not the British government back in London, underwrite those costs. This meant, in effect, that they wanted to tax themselves.

These niceties would surely be rejected by those who protested this week. Their main point, which is understandable, is that they're upset by the scale of recent government spending, in particular government spending on failed corporations, especially the banks that triggered the recent global financial crisis. But if that's the case, there's a good case to be made that their protests should be staged outside the headquarters of insurance companies, stock brokerages, and other enterprises. Still, if such people went on to insist that the government is finally responsible for what it does on behalf of the people, some of us still have to wonder why Tax Day should be the time to take their stand, particularly given the fact that in the short term taxes are going down for most people and the government's current plans involve raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans who have benefited the most from the privilige of living here in a time of growing economic inequality. There are no new taxes of the kind that triggered the original Boston Tea Party. No one, of course, likes paying taxes. But surely willingness to pay for the many good things our government does is more patriotic than a protest with patriotic trappings that suggests that taxes are the problem rather than a potential solution.

Again, though: there's probably little point in trying to make such an argument to people who Governor Rick Perry of Texas suggested plausibly regard secession from the Union as the most appropriate response to their frustration. It falls instead to the rest of us to remember that the words of Abraham Lincoln, who was wrote that "the legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people what they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well for themselves in their separate and individual capacities." Lincoln considered things like roads to fall into this category. He would surely regard things like health insurance to fall under it too, especially given the evident inability of the private sector, individually or collectively, to provide it communally on a local or national level. The Tea Party protesters might have forgotten which of their parents receive Medicare, or how many of them drove to their protests on Interstate highways, visited national parks, collected unemployment insurance or attended state universities. It is this tradition of representative government no less than that represented by the Boston Tea Party that forms the core of our national identity. For the moment, at least, Barack Obama is no Lord North. Let's keep our powder dry.