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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Calif-ornery”

In my column for the November 13th, 2009, edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, I – using a bit of 17th-century history – took aim at brazen armed robbery carried out by the government (so-called) of the State of California. You can read my column beneath the fold. (Alas, I am no longer confident that my concluding sentiment is correct.)


On Nov. 1, the government of the state of California began withholding from workers’ paychecks 10 percent more than what it had been withholding.

The Los Angeles Times described this move — prompted by California’s fiscal calamity — as “a forced, interest-free loan” from taxpayers to the government. The Times explained to its California readers that “You’ll be repaid any extra withholding in April. Those who would receive a refund anyway will receive a larger one, and those who owe taxes will owe less.”

The ostensible purpose of withholding is to better ensure that taxpayers actually pay the taxes they owe. Governments fear that without withholding, too many taxpayers won’t have enough to pay their full tax bills.

Regardless of the merits or demerits of this justification for withholding, California’s government is now using withholding for a quite different purpose: to extract a forced loan.

Put more plainly, California’s government has become a blatant thief.

Libertarians often insist that all taxation is theft. But even people who grant the legitimacy of even heavy taxation must be appalled at this move coming out of Sacramento.

Proponents of this additional withholding say that it’s not a tax.

OK. So what, then, is it? It’s not a gift from Californians to their government, for gifts are made voluntarily.

Nor is it a real loan, for each real loan is the result of a voluntary, mutually agreeable transaction between lender and borrower. And real loans typically carry interest.

It is, for want of a better term, a forced loan — with emphasis on “forced.”

Force, of course, is an ingredient in robbery. Robbery victims turn their money and other valuables over to robbers only because robbers threaten to use physical force against victims who don’t hand over what the robbers demand.

Even if a robber earnestly assures his victims that he will repay them sometime in the future — and even if he promises to repay interest along with the full principal — no one would label this robber’s acts as anything other than thievery.

No society would or should tolerate such a battering of private property rights.

Yet California’s government has now taken to confiscating its citizens’ money without even bothering to hide behind the pretext of taxation for the general good.

“We need more money. You have more money. We have more guns and prisons than you have. So hand it over.” That’s the root message that Sacramento is now blasting throughout the Golden State.

This arrogant attitude is not new to those in power. Throughout history, kings, queens, caliphs, czars, parliaments and congresses, being vested with monopoly power over the legitimized use of force, have been naturally inclined to deploy that force to serve their own ends. And to maintain as much support as possible among the productive populace (without whom there would be no wealth to tax or to otherwise confiscate), these sovereigns typically justified their predations as being for the greater good of the people.

Fortunately, this sort of predatory duplicity doesn’t always work out so well for the predators.

England’s King Charles I (who reigned from 1625, when his father James I died, until 1649) inherited not only his father’s throne but also his father’s deep belief in the divine right of kings. Charles thought himself subject to God but not to the people. They were his subjects.

So with the royal treasury short on cash in 1626 and Parliament unwilling to raise taxes any further, Charles took out a forced loan against his subjects. Most people paid.

But not all did. Non-landowners who resisted this “loan” were conscripted into service aboard British naval ships. And about 80 heroic English landowners refused Charles’ demand. They were imprisoned for their refusal. Among these heroes was John Hampden, one of the namesakes of Hampden-Sydney College.

Ten years later, when Charles issued another arbitrary demand for money — in this case called “ship money” — Hampden refused to pay the 20 shillings that he was assessed. He argued that, as before, this manner of raising money was illegal, despite the fact that the king implemented it. Hampden was again imprisoned.

In a parliamentary speech defending the American revolutionaries, Edmund Burke recalled Hampden’s courage: “Would twenty shillings have ruined Mr. Hampden’s fortune? No! But the payment of half twenty shillings, on the principle it was demanded, would have made him a slave.”

King Charles I’s arbitrary and arrogant use of power eventually led to his execution in 1649 and to the English Revolution. King George III’s and Parliament’s arbitrary rule of the American Colonies led to the American Revolution.

California’s arbitrary increase in withholding is not, itself, going to spark a revolution. But politicians in that state, and throughout the U.S., should understand that this country is full of people who will not be slaves to any government.