Government Officials Want You to Know that Your Earnings Belong to Them

Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, recently created a media flap when she said:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there—good for you!

But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea—God bless. Keep a big hunk of it.

But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Conservatives and libertarians took offense at Warren’s claim that the government has a superior claim to “a hunk” of people’s earnings merely because every individual lives in and benefits from a society to whose creation many other people have contributed.

The critics might well have been grateful for small blessings, however. Warren was prepared, rhetorically at least, to let people keep “a big hunk” of their earnings.

U.S. government officials in earlier times were sometimes unwilling to admit that people had a right to retain any of their earnings, and forthright in their declarations that everything people possessed really belonged to the government.

Striking examples of such views may be found in the recently published book by Burton Folsom and Anita Folsom, FDR Goes to War. There the Folsoms present a meaty discussion of the congressional debate that occurred in 1943 in regard to bills eventually enacted in compromise form as the Current Tax Payment Act of 1943—the statute that, among other things, established income-tax withholding at the source. In that debate, the following statements were made in Congress:

Rep. Emanuel Celler (D-N.Y.)—The government can at any time make income taxes as thumping big as the necessities of war require. Thus, if any plan does not raise enough money, taxes can at any time be increased. The government always has a moral if not actual lien on all our income. (p. 200, emphasis added)

Sen. Happy Chandler (D-Ky.)—[A]ll of us owe the government; we owe it for everything we have—and that is the basis of obligation—and the government can take everything we have if the government needs it.  . . . The government can assert its right to have all the taxes it needs for any purpose, either now or at any time in the future. (p. 200, emphasis added)

Rep. Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.)—The public, with money in its pockets, will inevitably try to use this money to buy what it wants, what it may need.  . . . [T]o check the forces making for inflation, we must direct our tax policy toward diverting an ever larger part of the funds of persons above subsistence levels into the Public Treasury. (p. 201, emphasis added)

So, lighten up, small-government friends. Be grateful that you must contend only with Warren, and not with the likes of Celler, Chandler, and Mills. Maybe there is progress after all.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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