Eliminate the Slave Tax

by Alan Keyes

Former Reagan administration official Alan Keyes served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Social and Economic Council, and was a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.


The case for abolishing the income tax is clear and simple. Of course, so is the case that any serious reduction in marginal income-tax rates will produce more, not less, revenue for the federal government. This hasn't stopped many in the GOP from swallowing hook, line and sinker the Democrat Party line that an income-tax cut is, in effect, a government expenditure. With friends like this, what good is argument?

Such slavish thinking, even in a Republican White House, just emphasizes that we must attend to the serious work of setting before the American people the only tax agenda that is going to restore our freedom. We must abolish the income tax and replace it with the tax system that was intended by our Founders when this nation began—a tax system that leaves our people in control of 100 percent of their dollars, and that gives to the earner the first use of every earned dollar.

The income tax is a slave tax—inherently incompatible with freedom. Abolishing it is therefore not just economically feasible, it is a moral imperative if we are to meet our obligation to bequeath liberty to future generations. The tax issue is a moral issue because it raises fundamental questions about the way American citizens insist that they be treated by their government, and thus inevitably by each other. Are we a nation of grown-ups whose government is our instrument, or are we a nation of children whose will and resources are subject to the control of "Big Daddy" government? This is what is actually at stake in the "economic" debate over tax policy.

What, concretely, should be done? We should repeal the l6th Amendment to the Constitution and thus return to the original Constitution of this country. And then we should simply abolish the tax code that inflicts the income tax on our people. We should fund the federal government through tariffs, duties and excise taxes (i.e., sales taxes) as the Founders intended. The income tax should be replaced with the kind of taxes most people are already paying—the taxes on things we buy and that we pay only when we decide to buy them. By restoring tariffs and duties to their proper role, we will also make foreign populations who benefit from access to the U.S. market share the burden of supporting the governmental system that guarantees its existence.

Instead of waiting upon the whim of politicians and bureaucrats, we will control our own tax burden by controlling the amount and pattern of our consumption. An excise-tax system would mean that each citizen would decide what his tax burden was going to be. This is what the Founders intended to be our economic situation: ordinary citizens in command of the economic patterns of their own lives.

An excise-tax system would also impose natural limits on the rate of taxation. Politicians would have to think like business people, because the revenue-suppressing effect of excessive rates of taxation—already present in fact in the income tax—would be so obvious that even politicians could see it.

The most important reason to end the income tax is that its elimination would be a crucial blow against the habits of servitude that an all-powerful IRS has helped to instill in this supposedly free people. Obliged for decades to reveal the most intimate details of our life to a government bureaucracy, we are unlearning whatever substantive notion we once had of political liberty. If government is our servant, why must we confess all to it? By contrast, under a sales-tax system we would not have to report the facts of our individual economic situation or choices to a living soul.

Over time, the difference in these two patterns of economic life would exert a profound effect on the quality and extent of the responsibility we take for our own lives. Even the venerated system of charitable tax deductions represents, in fact, government coercion of our economic and moral decisions. We are permitted the carrot of tax relief, but only when we make the choices the government directs and dutifully report them to our master. This manipulation has already had a chilling effect on the willingness of our moral leaders in the churches to speak out against the moral abuses being encouraged by political and judicial decisions. Fear of losing their tax-exempt status has discouraged religious leaders from their traditional role as the nation's conscience, the sparks of its passions for moral decency.

Government's claim to be privy to everything about our lives flows naturally into a claim to be responsible for everything as well, and to insist on a commensurate power. The income tax is a kind of universal solvent, dissolving the private and personal resolve each of us should have to control responsibly the actions we take in the acquisition and expenditure of wealth, and acts of community and friendship that are involved. It is time that we insist on a tax policy for grown-ups, and that means abolishing the income tax and replacing it with a tax structure whose first premise is the capacity of American citizens to make their own economic decisions responsibly.

The tax debate is an opportunity for conservatives to demonstrate the unity of the moral and economic agenda, and to demonstrate concretely the confidence we do and must have in the people of this country. It is a profoundly democratic opportunity, and thus a great duty for anyone aspiring to be an American statesman and to lead this people. We must lead the American republic to the abolition of the slave tax, and for the right reasons. The challenge of fundamental tax reform is a test of the statesmanship of our politicians and of the quality of citizenship in our people.