The issue of taxation is one that seems to be discussed quite often.

We talk about taxes during presidential elections or when a senate seat is up for grabs. We argue about taxes with our grandparents during Thanksgiving. We excitedly clamor for higher taxes to pay for governmental services so long as we ourselves do not have to pay them. 

Tax the rich, tax the billionaires, tax the millionaires, tax the corporations, tax the oil companies, and tax the churches. The average American nowadays wants to tax anything and everything that has more money than they do. And yet, what you rarely hear talked about is the many different forms of taxation in America.  

It is easy to assume that income taxes simply fall under the broader umbrella of taxation. This assumption, however, would ignore the particularly important delineations that must be made between the federal income tax and property taxes, sales taxes, capital gains taxes, and excise taxes. 

We all, on some level, have experienced the income tax. All of us have heard our parents bemoan them when they come from work. We get a taste of the income tax when we get our first job, and that taste quickly turns sour as we pay them year after year for the rest of our lives – so long as we are earning taxable income. We even vote on income taxes indirectly when we choose political leaders, with each party offering a different stance on the issue of the income tax. 

Some favor higher income taxes while others desire lower ones. Some offer a progressive income tax bracket as a solution (taxing higher earning individuals a higher percentage of their earnings) to inequality while some favor a flat rate. And yet, what I find most interesting is that we talk about the income tax as if it is as old as American life itself – as if the income tax is some permanent feature of our lives that has always existed and will continue to exist for eternity. Well, the income tax has not always been around, and I hope that after reading this article you will understand why I hope it does not exist forever. 

The real first instance of the income tax in America was during the Civil War when Lincoln realized the Union needed to raise funds to help pay for the war effort. 

According to the Libertarian think-tank, The Mises Institute: “In March [1861], the Congress passed an income tax of 3% on annual incomes of $600 to $10,000 and 5% on incomes from $10,000 to $50,000…Lincoln signed the bill on July 1, 1862, to take effect a month later.”  

The tax, however, was repealed following the conclusion of the war, and it was not until 1913 that the United States introduced the income tax in the form that we recognize today. 

According to the previous institute, the government chose to pass an income tax of one percent on incomes above $3,000 and applied surcharges between two percent and seven percent on income from $20,000 to $500,000. Tax rates would swing from as low as seven percent to as high as 94 percent over the following century, but never again would the working American citizen keep 100 percent of his or her earnings at their own discretion. 

The income tax, with only the property tax as a possible exception, is the only tax that allows the federal government to directly take a percentage of an American citizen’s income. Following the Enlightenment Era school of thought that one’s property must be considered as part of that individual’s personhood, it is reasonable, if not necessary, to look at an individual’s income as part of their very being. 

To take someone’s money without their consent should be seen in the same light as taking someone’s arm or leg without their consent. The founders of the United States understood this, and specifically wrote the Constitution to ban the direct taxing of the United States citizenry unless done so by the states. The 16th Amendment was passed with the express purpose of undermining this sacred protection and allowing the legal confiscation of private individuals’ wealth without their consent. 

What makes the income tax such an egregious breach of American freedom is that it negates the element of choice. If I wish to avoid a sales tax, I can refuse to purchase certain items or move to a state with a lower tax. If I wish to avoid certain property taxes, I can always move to another location. The same logic follows with an excise tax as no one is forcing me to buy – for example, cigarettes. 

When it comes to the income tax, however, there is no avoiding it. I am coerced every year to send a portion of my own personhood to the federal government or armed individuals will come to my home and seize me at gunpoint on charges of refusing to comply. A percentage of my very being works for the government for free every single year and there is no action that I can take to prevent this.   

Systems of forced labor in the United States have historically been exploitative, unjust, and unconstitutional, with many of us working even to this day to right these past wrongs. And yet, amidst all this injustice, the income tax was created and allowed to thrive, ensnaring each and every American in its grasp. 

The most amazing part of it all is that, unlike other systems of forced, unpaid labor, many of us actually call out for more of this injustice. Many of us advocate for the increased confiscation of our own property, not less of it. We have been led to believe that this forced confiscation of our own personhood is benevolent, and that the more we allow the government to take, the more unselfish and caring we are towards others. 

We have been convinced not only that coerced labor should be legal and accepted, but that we should actively vote for our own financial toil. The former is certainly scary, but I would argue the latter is what is truly terrifying.   


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