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The Arc of Justice and the Long Run Hope, History, and Unpredictability

The Arc of Justice and the Long Run Hope, History, and Unpredictability.

by Rebecca Solnit, originally published by TomDispatch  | TODAY

North American cicada nymphs live underground for 17 years before they emerge as adults. Many seeds stay dormant far longer than that before some disturbance makes them germinate. Some trees bear fruit long after the people who have planted them have died, and one Massachusetts pear tree, planted by a Puritan in 1630, is still bearing fruit far sweeter than most of what those fundamentalists brought to this continent. Sometimes cause and effect are centuries apart; sometimes Martin Luther King’s arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice is so long few see its curve; sometimes hope lies not in looking forward but backward to study the line of that arc.

Three years ago at this time, after a young Tunisian set himself on fire to protest injustice, the Arab Spring was on the cusp of erupting. An even younger man, a rapper who went by the name El Général, was on the verge of being arrested for “Rais Lebled” (a tweaked version of the phrase “head of state”), a song that would help launch the revolution in Tunisia.
Weeks before either the Tunisian or Egyptian revolutions erupted, no one imagined they were going to happen. No one foresaw them. No one was talking about the Arab world or northern Africa as places with a fierce appetite for justice and democracy. No one was saying much about unarmed popular power as a force in that corner of the world. No one knew that the seeds were germinating.
A small but striking aspect of the Arab Spring was the role of hip-hop in it. Though the U.S. government often exports repression — its billions in aid to the Egyptian military over the decades, for example — American culture can be something else altogether, and often has been.
Henry David Thoreau wrote books that not many people read when they were published. He famously said of his unsold copies, “I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes over 700 of which I wrote myself.” But a South African lawyer of Indian descent named Mohandas Gandhi read Thoreau on civil disobedience and found ideas that helped him fight discrimination in Africa and then liberate his own country from British rule. Martin Luther King studied Thoreau and Gandhi and put their ideas to work in the United States, while in 1952 the African National Congress and the young Nelson Mandela were collaborating with the South African Indian Congress on civil disobedience campaigns. You wish you could write Thoreau a letter about all this. He had no way of knowing that what he planted would still be bearing fruit 151 years after his death. But the past doesn’t need us. The past guides us; the future needs us.
An influential comic book on civil disobedience and Martin Luther King published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation in the U.S. in 1957 was translated into Arabic and distributed in Egypt in 2009, four decades after King’s death. What its impact was cannot be measured, but it seems to have had one in the Egyptian uprising which was a dizzying mix of social media, outside pressure, street fighting, and huge demonstrations.
The past explodes from time to time, and many events that once seemed to have achieved nothing turn out to do their work slowly. Much of what has been most beautifully transformative in recent years has also been branded a failure by people who want instant results guaranteed or your money back. The Arab Spring has just begun, and if some of the participant nations are going through their equivalent of the French Revolution, it’s worth remembering that France, despite the Terror and the Napoleonic era, never went back either to absolutist monarchy or the belief that such a condition could be legitimate. It was a mess, it was an improvement, it’s still not finished.
The same might be said of the South African upheaval Mandela catalyzed. It made things better; it has not made them good enough. It’s worth pointing out as well that what was liberated by the end of apartheid was not only the nonwhite population of one country, but a sense of power and possibility for so many globally who had participated in the boycotts and other campaigns to end apartheid in that miraculous era from 1989 to 1991 that also saw the collapse of the Soviet Union, successful revolutions across Eastern Europe, the student uprising in Beijing, and the beginning of the end of many authoritarian regimes in Latin America.
In the hopeful aftermath of that transformation, Mandela wrote, “The titanic effort that has brought liberation to South Africa and ensured the total liberation of Africa constitutes an act of redemption for the black people of the world. It is a gift of emancipation also to those who, because they were white, imposed on themselves the heavy burden of assuming the mantle of rulers of all humanity. It says to all who will listen and understand that, by ending the apartheid barbarity that was the offspring of European colonization, Africa has, once more, contributed to the advance of human civilization and further expanded the frontiers of liberty everywhere.”
Congo Square
The arc of justice is long. It travels through New Orleans, the city I’ve returned to again and again since Hurricane Katrina.  It’s been my way of trying to understand not just disaster, but community, culture, and continuity, three things that city possesses as no place else in the nation. Hip-hop comes most directly from the South Bronx, but if you look at the 1970s founders of that genre of popular music, you see that some of the key figures were Caribbean, and if you look at their formative music, it included the ska and reggae that were infused with the influence of New Orleans. (In addition, that city’s native son and major jazz figure, Donald Harrison, Jr., was a mentor to seminal New York City rapper Notorious B.I.G.)
If you look at New Orleans, what you see is an astonishing example of the survival of culture — and of the culture of survival.
Maybe you’d have to do what I was doing in early 2011 — poke around in the origins of American music in New Orleans — to be struck by the way so many essential parts of it came from Africa in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and some of it returned to that continent again in recent years. I was looking at maps, making maps, thinking about how to chart the unexpected ways immaterial things move through time and space.
The saddest map I have ever seen is the oft-published one of the triangle trade, a vicious circle that isn’t even a circle. It depicts the routes of the eighteenth and nineteenth century European traders who brought manufactured goods from their continent to West Africa to exchange for human beings who were then transported to the United States and the Caribbean to be exchanged for raw materials, especially sugar, rum, and tobacco. It’s a map that tells of people made into tools and commodities, but it tells us nothing of what the enslaved brought with them.
Stripped bare of all possessions and rights, they carried memory, culture, and resistance in their heads. New Orleans let those things flourish as nowhere else in the United States during the long, obscene era of slavery, while the biggest slave uprising in U.S. history took place nearby in 1811 (its participants including two young Asante warriors who had arrived in New Orleans on slave ships five years earlier). From the mid-eighteenth century to the 1840s, the enslaved of New Orleans were permitted to gather on Sundays in the plaza on the edge of the old city known then and now as Congo Square.
“On sabbath evening,” the visitor H.C. Knight famously wrote in 1819, “the African slaves meet on the green, by the swamp, and rock the city with their Congo dances.” The great music historian Ned Sublette observes that this is the first use of rock as a verb about music, and in his marvelous book The World That Made New Orleans notes that what is arguably the first rock and roll record, Roy Brown’s 1947 “Good Rocking Tonight,” was recorded a block away.
In between, what Africans had brought with them continued its metamorphosis in the city: jazz famously arose from black culture near Congo Square, as did important rhythm and blues strains and influences, as well as performers, then funk, and eventually hip-hop. Funk arose in part from Afro-Cuban influences and from the African-American tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians — not Native Americans, but working-class African Americans. Their elaborate outfits and rites officially pay homage to the Native Americans who sheltered runaway slaves (and sometimes intermarried with them), but have a startling resemblance to African beaded costumes. The Mardi Gras Indians still parade on that day and other days, chanting and singing, challenging each other through song. One of the recurrent chantsdeclares, “We won’t bow down.”
Though New Orleans is mainly famous for other things, it has also been a city of resistance — from the slave revolts of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to late nineteenth century segregation-breaker Homer Plessy to Ruby Bridges, the six-year-old who in 1960 was the first Black child to integrate a white school in the South. The span of time is not as long as you might think: Fats Domino, one of the founding fathers of rock and roll, is still alive and has a home in the Lower Ninth Ward. The midwife at his birth a few blocks away was his grandmother, who had been born into slavery.
New Orleanian Herreast Harrison, a woman in her seventies, mother of jazzman Donald Harrison Jr., widow of a Mardi Gras Indian chief, cultural preserver, and a dynamic force in the city, said to me of Mardi Gras Indian culture:
“But those groups remembered their cultural heritage and practiced it there, that memory, they had this overarching memory of their pasts. And when they were there, they were free. And their spirits soared to the high heavens. They were themselves. In spite of limitations in every aspect of their lives. Where they should have felt like, ‘we are nothing,’ because you get brainwashed constantly about the fact that you’re a nobody… but they didn’t, they brought back. And now it’s part of the world, that music.”
And her son, Donald Harrison, Jr., added:
“One other very important thing that Congo Square represented in the culture was that no matter what’s going on in life you transcend the culture and Congo Square helps you. It transcends and puts you into a transcendental state so that you are free at that moment. Even today, that’s the power of the music and that’s why it brings us together. You have a moment of freedom where you transcend everything that’s going on around you. Berthold Auerbach said it so eloquently: ‘Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.’  At that moment you become free, which is why the music is part of the world now. Everybody wants a moment to transcend. It goes inside of you and you know where you can go to be free. No matter if you’re in Norway, South American, or Beijing, you know, ‘this music sets me free.’ So Congo Square set the world free, basically. It gives freedom to everyone around it.”
In my latest project, Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, I tried to convey what New Orleans music gave the world in a map labeled “Repercussions: Rhythm and Resistance Across the Atlantic.” Those involuntary émigrés brought by slave ship were said to have nothing, but what they had still reaches and spreads and liberates.
Click here to see a larger version

Repercussions: Rhythm and Resistance Across the Atlantic. Map concept and research: Rebecca Solnit. Cartography: Shizue Seigel. Design: Lia Tjandra. c Univ. of CA Press, 2013.
What we call the Arab Spring was first of all the North African Spring — in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya — and hip-hop was already there. It has, in fact, become a global means of dissent, from indigenous Oaxaca, Mexico, to Cairo, Egypt. Which does not mean that everything is fine (or that hip-hop can’t also be used for consumerism or misogyny). It’s a reminder, however, that even in the most horrific of circumstances, something remarkable more than survived; it throve and grew and eventually reached around the Earth.
Nearly three years after the first sparks of the Arab Spring began, it’s wiser to consider it, too, barely begun rather than ended in failure. More than two years after the first members of Occupy Wall Street began decamping in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, that movement is not over either, though almost all the encampments have subsided and the engagement has new names: Occupy Sandy,Strike Debt, and more. That everything continues to metamorphose seems a better way to think of social upheavals than obituaries and epitaphs.
Maps of the Unpredictable
Whenever I look around me, I wonder what old things are about to bear fruit, what seemingly solid institutions might soon rupture, and what seeds we might now be planting whose harvest will come at some unpredictable moment in the future. The most magnificent person I met in 2013 quoted a line from Michel Foucault to me: “People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.” Someone saves a life or educates a person or tells her a story that upends everything she assumed. The transformation may be subtle or crucial or world changing, next year or in 100 years, or maybe in a millennium. You can’t always trace it but everything, everyone has a genealogy.
In her forthcoming book The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, Sarah Lewis tells how a white teenager in Austin, Texas, named Charles Black heard a black trumpet player in the 1930s who changed his thinking — and so our lives. He was riveted and transformed by the beauty of New Orleans jazzman Louis Armstrong’s music, so much so that he began to reconsider the segregated world he had grown up in. “It is impossible to overstate the significance of a 16-year-old Southern boy’s seeing genius, for the first time, in a black,” he recalled decades later. As a lawyer dedicated to racial equality and civil rights, he would in 1954 help overturn segregation nationwide, aiding the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case ending segregation (and overturning Plessy v. Ferguson, the failed anti-segregation lawsuit launched in New Orleans 60 years earlier).
How do you explain what Louis Armstrong’s music does? Can you draw a map of the United States in which the sound of a trumpeter in 1930s Texas reaches back to moments of liberation created by slaves in Congo Square and forward to the Supreme Court of 1954?
Or how do you chart the way in which the capture of three young American hikers by Iranian border guards on the Iraq-Iran border in 2009 and their imprisonment — the men for 781 days — became the occasion for secret talks between the U.S. and Iran that led to the interim nuclear agreement signed last month? Can you draw a map of the world in which three idealistic young people out on a walk become prisoners and then catalysts?
Looking back, one of those three prisoners, Shane Bauer, wrote, “One of my fears in prison was that our detention was only going to fuel hostility between Iran and the U.S. It feels good to know that those two miserable years led to something, that could lead to something better than what was before.”
Bauer later added:
“The reason our tragedy led to an opening between the United States and Iran was that many people were actively working to end our suffering. To do so, our friends and families had to strive to build a bridge between the U.S. and Iran when the two governments were refusing to do it themselves. Sarah [Shourd, the third prisoner] is not a politician and she has no desire to be, but when she was released a year before Josh and me, she made herself into a skilled and unrelenting diplomat, strengthening connections between Oman and the U.S. that ultimately led to these talks.”
decade ago I began writing about hope, an orientation that has nothing to do with optimism. Optimism says that everything will be fine no matter what, just as pessimism says that it will be dismal no matter what. Hope is a sense of the grand mystery of it all, the knowledge that we don’t know how it will turn out, that anything is possible. It means recognizing that the sound of a trumpet at a school dance in Austin, Texas, may resound in the Supreme Court 20 years later; that an unfortunate hike in the borderlands might help turn two countries away from war; that Edward Snowden, a young NSA contractor and the biggest surprise of this year, might revolt against that agency’s sinister invasions of privacy and be surprised himself by the vehemence of the global reaction to his leaked data; that culture which left Africa more than 200 years ago might return to that continent as a tool for liberation — that we don’t know what we do does.
That Massachusetts pear tree is still bearing fruit almost 400 years after it was planted. The planter of that tree also helped instigate the war against the Pequots, who were massacred in 1637. “The survivors were sold into slavery or given over to neighboring tribes. The colonists even barred the use of the Pequot name, ‘in order to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth,’ as the leader of the raiding party later wrote,” according to the New York Times.
For centuries thereafter, that Native American nation was described as extinct, erased, gone. It was written about in the past tense when mentioned at all. In the 1970s, however, the Pequots achieved federal recognition, entitling them to the rights that Native American tribes have as “subject sovereign nations”; in the 1980s, they opened a bingo hall on their reservation in Connecticut; in the 1990s, it became the biggest casino in the western world. (Just for the record, I’m not a fan of the gambling industry, but I am of unpredictable narratives.)
With the enormous income from that project, the tribe funded a Native American history museum that opened in 1998, also the biggest of its kind. The new empire of the Pequots has been on rocky ground since the financial meltdown of 2008, but the fact that it arose at all is astonishing more than 150 years after Herman Melville stuck a ship called the Pequod in the middle of his novel Moby Dick and mentioned that it was named after a people “now extinct as the ancient Medes.” Are there are longer odds in New England than that a people long pronounced gone would end up profiting from the bad-math optimism of their neighbors?
Meanwhile, that pear tree continues to bear fruit; meanwhile, hip-hop continues to be a vehicle for political dissent from the Inuit far north to Latin America; meanwhile, diplomatic relations with Iran have had some surprising twists and turns, most recently away from war.
I see the fabric of my country’s rights and justices fraying and I see climate change advancing. There are terrible things about this moment and it’s clear that the consequences of climate change will get worse (though how much worse still depends on us). I also see that we never actually know how things will play out in the end, that the most unlikely events often occur, that we are a very innovative and resilient species, and that far more of us are idealists than is good for business and the status quo to acknowledge.
What I learned first in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was how calm, how resourceful, and how generous people could be in the worst times: the “Cajun Navy” that came in to rescue people by boat, the stranded themselves who formed communities of mutual aid, the hundreds of thousands of volunteers, from middle-aged Mennonites to young anarchists, who arrived afterward to help salvage a city that could have been left for dead.
I don’t know what’s coming. I do know that, whatever it is, some of it will be terrible, but some of it will be miraculous, that term we reserve for the utterly unanticipated, the seeds we didn’t know the soil held. And I know that we don’t know what we do does. As Shane Bauer points out, the doing is the crucial thing.
Rebecca Solnit co-directed Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlasthe sequel to her 2010 Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas.  A TomDispatch regular, she has written the final article of the year for that site for the last nine years.

 

Is a Large Wealth Grab on the Way? |

Is a Large Wealth Grab on the Way? |. (source)

IMF Discusses ‘One-Off’ Wealth Tax

It is undoubtedly nice to have a job with the World Bank or the IMF. One of the most enticing aspects for those employed at these organizations (which n.b. are entirely funded by tax payers), is no doubt that apart from receiving generous salaries and perks, they themselves don’t have to pay any taxes. What a great gig! Since these organizations are so to speak ‘extra-territorial’, they are held to be outside the grasp of specific tax authorities.

This doesn’t keep them from thinking up various ways of how to resolve the by now well-known problem of the looming insolvency of various welfare/warfare states. In fact, they have quite a strong incentive to come up with such ideas, since their own livelihood depends on the revenue streams continuing without a hitch. One recent proposal in particular has made waves lately (it can be found in this paper – pdf), mainly because it sounds precisely like the kind of thing many people expect desperate governments to resort to when push comes to shove, not least because they have taken similar measures repeatedly throughout history.

The recent depositor haircut in Cyprus has also contributed to such expectations becoming more widespread. We believe is that it is far better to let shareholders, bondholders and depositors (in that order) take their lumps in the event of bank insolvencies rather than forcing the bill on unsuspecting tax payers via bailouts. What was odious about the Cypriot haircut was mainly that the government steadfastly lied to its citizens about what was coming and that certain classes of depositors, such as e.g. the president’s relatives, got all their money out just a week or two prior to the bank holiday, by what we are assured was sheer coincidence (this unexpected twist of fate which proved so fortuitous to the president’s clan increased the costs for remaining depositors).

Still, the entire escapade was a salutary event in many respects. It proved that government bonds are not a reliable store of value (it was mainly their holdings of Greek government bonds that got the Cypriot banks into hot water) and it was a reminder that fractionally reserved banks are inherently insolvent. In short, it has helped a bit to concentrate the minds of many of those who still remain whole and has sensitized them to other attempts of grabbing private wealth that may be coming down the pike.

This is probably also the reason why a paragraph in an IMF document that may otherwise not have received much scrutiny as it would have been considered too outlandish an idea, has created quite a stir. That such proposals are made from the comfortable environment of a tax free zone is quite ironic. Here is the paragraph in question:

“The sharp deterioration of the public finances in  many countries has revived interest in a “capital levy”—  a one-off tax on private wealth—as an exceptional  measure to restore debt sustainability. The appeal is that such a tax, if it is implemented before avoidance is possible and there is a belief that it will never be  repeated, does not distort behavior (and may be seen by some as fair). There have been illustrious supporters, including Pigou, Ricardo, Schumpeter, and—until he  changed his mind—Keynes. The conditions for success  are strong, but also need to be weighed against the risks  of the alternatives, which include repudiating public  debt or inflating it away (these, in turn, are a particular form of wealth tax—on bondholders—that also falls on nonresidents).

There is a surprisingly large amount of experience to draw on, as such levies were widely adopted in Europe after World War I and in Germany and Japan after World War II. Reviewed in Eichengreen (1990), this experience suggests that more notable than any loss of credibility was a simple failure to achieve debt reduction, largely because the delay in introduction gave space for extensive avoidance and capital flight—in turn spurring inflation.

The tax rates needed to bring down public debt to  precrisis levels, moreover, are sizable: reducing debt ratios to end-2007 levels would require (for a sample of 15 euro area countries) a tax rate of about 10 percent on households with positive net wealth.”

(emphasis added)

It is actually not a surprise that there is a ‘wealth of experience to draw on’. Throughout history, governments have thought up all sorts of methods to get their hands on their subjects’ wealth. It would have only been a surprise if there had been no ‘experiences to draw on’. In fact, as wasteful and inefficient as the State is otherwise, this is one of the tasks in which it proves extremely resourceful, inventive and efficient. The extraction of citizens’ wealth is an activity at which it excels.

Apparently the IMF judges that stealing 10% of all private wealth in one fell swoop is perfectly fine as long as ‘some see it as fair‘. Some of course would. There is however a crucial difference between imposing such a levy at gunpoint and letting bondholders take losses. The latter have taken the risk of not getting repaid voluntarily. No-one forced them to buy government bonds.

As to the pseudo-consolation that such a confiscation should be presented as a ‘one off’ event so as ‘not to distort behavior’, let’s be serious. The moment  governments gets more loot in, they will start spending it with both hands and in no time at all will find themselves back at square one.

States and Taxation

As Franz Oppenheimer has pointed out, States are essentially the result of conquests by gangs of marauders who realized that operating a protection racket was far more profitable than simply grabbing everything that wasn’t nailed down and making off with. In modern democracies it has become easier for citizens to join the ruling class (i.e., the more civilized version of these marauders), which has greatly increased acceptance of the State. Also, a large number of people has been bought off with ‘free’ goodies and all and sundry have had it drilled into them throughout their lives that the State is both inevitable and irreplaceable.

There are of course other advantages to be had in democracies, such as the fact that a market economy is allowed to exist (even if it is severely hampered) and that free speech is tolerated. One considerable drawback though is that taxation has historically never been higher than in the democratic order (and still these States are all teetering on the edge of bankruptcyanyway).

As an aside, conscription and the closely associated concept of ‘total war’ are also democratic ‘achievements’. Whereas war was once largely confined to strictly localized battles between professionals, the French revolution and its aftermath was a pivot point that marked a change in thinking about war and ultimately paved the way for legitimizing the all-encompassing atrocities of the 20th century, with civilians suddenly regarded as fair game.

A little historical excursion: Under medieval kings there was at least occasionally a chance that a tax might actually be repealed, even if only temporarily. For instance, in 1012 the heregeld was introduced in England, an annual tax first assessed by King Ethelred the Unready (better: ‘the Ill-Advised’). Its purpose was to help pay for mercenaries to fight the invasion of England by King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark.

Ethelred had been forced to pay a tribute to the Danes for many years, known as ‘Danegeld‘. In 1002 AD he apparently got fed up and in a fit of pique ordered the murder of all Danes in England, an event known as the St. Brice’s Day Massacre. Not surprisingly, this incensed the Danes and Sweyn Forkbeard’s invasion was the result. Sweyn seized the English throne in 1013, but died in 1014, upon which Ethelred was invited back by the nobles (under the condition that he ‘rule more justly’). However, he soon died as well, which left Edmund Ironside in charge for a few months in 1016. Sweyn’s son Knut eventually conquered England later in the same year. Knut simply continued to collect the heregeld tax after ascending to the throne. The heregeld was a land tax based on the number of ‘hides’ one owned (the hide is a medieval area measure, the precise extent of which is disputed among historians; one hide was once thought to be equivalent to 120 acres, but this is no longer considered certain). The tax was finally abolished by King Edward the Confessor in 1051 (Edward was Ethelred’s seventh son and was later canonized. He was the last king of the House of Wessex). The tax relief unfortunately proved short-lived. Shortly after Edward’s death in 1066, the Normans conquered England and ‘hideage‘ was reintroduced.

Ethelred_the_Unready

Ethelred the Unready, inventor of the heregeld tax, holding an oversized sword. Although he is generally referred to as ‘the Unready’, this translation of his nickname is actually incorrect: rather, it should be ‘ill-advised’ or ‘ill-prepared’. In the original old English “Æþelræd Unræd”, the term ‘unread’ is actually a pun on his name.  ‘Ethelred’ means ‘noble counsel’ (in modern German: ‘Edler Rat’) – his nickname thus juxtaposes ‘noble counsel’ with ‘no counsel’ or ‘evil counsel’.

(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Sweyn_Forkbeard
Ethelred’s nemesis, the Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard, likewise holding an oversized sword

(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Edward_the_Confessor

The man who abolished the heregeld tax, St. Edward the Confessor. It is noteworthy that he is usually not depicted holding an oversized sword (he was however reportedly not inexperienced in military matters. When Welsh raiders attacked English lands in 1049, they soon had reason for regret. The head of one of their leaders, Rhys ap Rhydderch, was delivered to Edward in 1052. The head was no longer attached to the rest of Rhys). Edward is probably not mainly remembered for this, but he gave England fifteen glorious years free of hideage tax.

(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

As Murray Rothbard writes in ‘The Ethics of Liberty’ on the State’s monopoly of force and its power to extract revenue by coercion:

“But, above all, the crucial monopoly is the State’s control of the use of violence: of the police and armed services, and of the courts—the locus of ultimate decision-making power in disputes over crimes and contracts. Control of the police and the army is particularly important in enforcing and assuring all of the State’s other powers, including the all-important power to extract its revenue by coercion.

For there is one crucially important power inherent in the nature of the State apparatus. All other persons and groups in society (except for acknowledged and sporadic criminals such as thieves and bank robbers) obtain their income voluntarily: either by selling goods and services to the consuming public, or by voluntary gift (e.g., membership in a club or association, bequest, or inheritance). Only the State obtains its revenue by coercion, by threatening dire penalties should the income not be forthcoming. That coercion is known as “taxation,” although in less regularized epochs it was often known as “tribute.” Taxation is theft, purely and simply even though it is theft on a grand and colossal scale which no acknowledged criminals could hope to match. It is a compulsory seizure of the property of the State’s inhabitants, or subjects.

It would be an instructive exercise for the skeptical reader to try to frame a definition of taxation which does not also include theft. Like the robber, the State demands money at the equivalent of gunpoint; if the taxpayer refuses to pay his assets are seized by force, and if he should resist such depredation, he will be arrested or shot if he should continue to resist. It is true that State apologists maintain that taxation is “really” voluntary; one simple but instructive refutation of this claim is to ponder what would happen if the government were to abolish taxation, and to confine itself to simple requests for voluntary contributions. Does anyone really believe that anything comparable to the current vast revenues of the State would continue to pour into its coffers? It is likely that even those theorists who claim that punishment never deters action would balk at such a claim. The great economist Joseph Schumpeter was correct when he acidly wrote that “the theory which construes taxes on the analogy of club dues or of the purchase of the services of, say, a doctor only proves how far removed this part of the social sciences is from scientific habits of mind.”

(emphasis in original)

In the pages following this excerpt, Rothbard expertly demolishes numerous spurious arguments that have been forwarded in support of taxes by people claiming that they are somehow akin to voluntary contributions.

The Vote Changes Nothing

In the course of this disquisition Rothbard also discusses whether the democratic vote actually makes a difference in this context, whether, as he puts it, the “act of voting makes the government and all its works and powers truly “voluntary.”  On this topic he quotes from the observations of anarchist political philosopher Lysander Spooner, who wrote the following in ‘No Treason:The Constitution of No Authority’:

“In truth, in the case of individuals their actual voting is not to be taken as proof of consent. . . . On the contrary, it is to be considered that, without his consent having even been asked a man finds himself environed by a government that he cannot resist; a government that forces him to pay money renders service, and foregoes the exercise of many of his natural rights, under peril of weighty punishments.

He sees, too, that other men practice this tyranny over him by the use of the ballot. He sees further, that, if he will but use the ballot himself, he has some chance of relieving himself from this tyranny of others, by subjecting them to his own. In short, he finds himself, without his consent, so situated that, if he uses the ballot, he may become a master, if he does not use it, he must become a slave.

(emphasis added)

Discussing taxation in the same text, Spooner famously compares government to highwaymen. He is however not merely equating one with the other, but rather concludes that highwaymen are to be preferred. After all, neither are their activities attended by hypocrisy, nor are their demands without limit (we would add to this that no-one ever published learned papers advising them how to best go about grabbing more loot).

“It is true that the theory of our Constitution is, that all taxes are paid voluntarily; that our government is a mutual insurance company, voluntarily entered into by the people with each other. . . .

But this theory of our government is wholly different from the practical fact. The fact is that the government, like a highwayman, says to a man: “Your money, or your life.” And many, if not most, taxes are paid under the compulsion of that threat.

The government does not, indeed, waylay a man in a lonely place, spring upon him from the roadside, and, holding a pistol to his head, proceed to rifle his pockets. But the robbery is none the less a robbery on that account; and it is far more dastardly and shameful.

The highwayman takes solely upon himself the responsibility, danger, and crime of his own act. He does not pretend that he has any rightful claim to your money, or that he intends to use it for your own benefit. He does not pretend to be anything but a robber. He has not acquired impudence enough to profess to be merely a “protector,” and that he takes men’s money against their will, merely to enable him to “protect” those infatuated travelers, who feel perfectly able to protect themselves, or do not appreciate his peculiar system of protection.

He is too sensible a man to make such professions as these. Furthermore, having taken your money, he leaves you, as you wish him to do. He does not persist in following you on the road, against your will; assuming to be your rightful “sovereign,” on account of the “protection” he affords you. He does not keep “protecting” you, by commanding you to bow down and serve him; by requiring you to do this, and forbidding you to do that; by robbing you of more money as often as he finds it for his interest or pleasure to do so; and by branding you as a rebel, a traitor, and an enemy to your country, and shooting you down without mercy if you dispute his authority, or resist his demands. He is too much of a gentleman to be guilty of such impostures, and insults, and villainies as these. In short, he does not, in addition to robbing you, attempt to make you either his dupe or his slave.”

(emphasis added)

Somehow we don’t think that Mr. Spooner would have been a very big fan of the IMF and its ideas.

LysanderSpoonerLysander Spooner had their number.

(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Conclusion:

The particular wealth tax proposal mentioned by the IMF en passant is odious in the extreme, especially as the wealth to be taxed has already been taxed at what are historically stratospheric rates.

It is noteworthy that the alternatives discussed by the IMF for heavily indebted states which are weighed down by the wasteful spending of yesterday appear to have been reduced to ‘default’ (either outright or via hyperinflation) or ‘more confiscation’. How about rigorously cutting spending instead?

One must also keep in mind that any proposals concerning so-called ‘tax fairness’ are in the main about ‘how can we get our hands on wealth that currently still eludes us’. People need to be aware that worsening the situation of one class of tax payers is never going to improve the situation of another. The IMF’s publication is a case in point: in all its yammering about ‘tax fairness’, the possibility of lowering anyone’s taxes is not mentioned once (not to mention that it seems quite hypocritical for people who are exempted from taxes to go on about imposing ‘tax fairness’ on others).

Lastly, a popular as well as populist target of the self-appointed arbiters of ‘fairness’ are loopholes, but as we have previously discussed, they are to paraphrase Mises ‘what allows capitalism to breathe‘. Closing them will in the end only lead to higher costs for consumers, less innovation, lower growth and considerable damage to retirement savings.

Loot_and_Extortion_-_geograph.org.uk_-_88390

Two apposite statues at Trago Mills, UK, dedicated to HM Inland Revenue – Loot & Extortion.

 

A revolution comes in stages — Occupy or otherwise

A revolution comes in stages — Occupy or otherwise. (FULL ARTICLE)

All of us hold an idea about how progressive change might happen, whether or not we spell it out explicitly. For some it’s an elaboration of grassroots alternative-building, for others it starts with flooding legislators with advocacy. One way or another, we all have one. But, while reading Nathan Schneider’s important recent piece on the Occupy movement in The Nation, I was reminded of the power of a theory of change to shape our actions.

Nathan — who is also an editor at Waging Nonviolence — turns to the theory of change developed by my friend Bill Moyer, the late civil rights organizer who went on to influence a number of social justice campaigns. Bill identified a series of eight stages that successful movements tend to go through on their way to victory; he called his theory the Movement Action Plan. Nathan finds that Bill’s fifth stage helps us understand Occupy in the past year or so, when a lot of participants have felt discouraged. Bill found that successful movements usually go through a let-down after the adrenalin rush of sudden growth in stage four, only to recover in stage six and have a chance of winning.


The eight stages of the Movement Action Plan: (source: Wikipedia)

  • Critical social problem exists
  • Prove failure of official institutions
  • Ripening conditions
  • Take off
  • Perception of failure
  • Majority public opinion
  • Success
  • Continuation…

 

How has this not led to outright revolution yet?

How has this not led to outright revolution yet?.

 

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