Fiscal persecution is a form of violence, while protests against fiscal tyranny are usually peaceful. What the Boston Tea Party can teach us about the Tai Ji Men case.
by Marco Respinti*
*A paper presented at the webinar “Non-Violence and the Tai Ji Men Case,” co-organized by the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) and Human Rights Without Frontiers on October 1, 2021, on the eve of the International Day of Non-Violence (October 2)
An article already published in Bitter Winter on October 12th, 2021.
A tax is a tribute citizens pay to the state, or to a public body, in exchange of some particular services. It differs from a levy, which is a compulsory withdrawal of some citizens’ wealth by the state to finance general public services. In the first case, taxes, some sort of market philosophy is implied: citizens pay for what they buy. Prices may be high, sometimes even unjust, and citizens may object, but normally the mechanism on which this exchange between money and goods is founded goes unchallenged. In fact, objections arise only from distortions of a dynamic that is fundamentally accepted (as more inevitable than just), and is seldom criticized.
The case of levies gives birth to greater concerns, because it is much less direct and objective. Since their aims are not always clear, citizens can suspect that they hide abuses. Often, when they lament that the fiscal burden is too heavy, regulations are obscure, and their application is dishonest, what they are really criticizing are levies rather than taxes. However, in common language, “taxes” is also used as a general term including levies.
Table of Contents
Taxes and private property
Taxation imposed in an exaggerate, unjust, or unlawful way violates citizens’ fundamental rights to liberty and private property, and amounts to persecution, which is another name for violence. What is particularly unacceptable here is that this violence is perpetrated by a state upon its own citizens. The offensive power of the state is incalculably higher than the defensive power of any citizen, no matter how wealthy and organized, and this is especially true for modern states. Worse still, the tool of this persecution is a fee that citizens are supposed to pay to enjoy benefits, not sorrow.
The case of Tai Ji Men in Taiwan is a textbook example of these problems. Here, the power of the state to tax citizens was transformed into a weapon to prevent some taxpayers from enjoying their fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief.
It is not without reason that I equated exaggerate, unjust, and unlawful taxation to persecution and violence. Human beings have the unalienable right to live free, and pursue the life they prefer. The money they earn and manage to save is a way to guarantee their independence. It is not the only one, but it is an effective, practical, and thus privileged means of self-defense and autonomy. The money earned through honest work is partially saved, and grants the possibility to own property, build a house, raise a family, educate children, start a business, and of course worship freely and live as one deems fit. All these essential human activities are private enterprises that produce highly beneficial results for the whole community. They are, thus, social enterprises. Both secular and religious moral and political philosophies (as opposite to morality as private ethics, politics is ethics lived publicly) include private property among the fundamental human rights.
The measure of the fiscal request
Pushing the concept of the right to private property as self-defense to its logic, albeit extreme consequences, in 1954 American author Frank Chodorov (1887–1966) published a book titled The Income Tax: The Root of All Evil. In this maverick, yet seminal text, Chodorov affirmed that income taxes (but not all taxes) are evil, because they deny the right of private property and presume government control over everything. More recently, in 1989, French economist Pascal Salin (1939–) authored L’arbitraire fiscal, the title of whose 2020 English edition conveys an even more strong message, Tax Tyranny.
On the opposite side of the libertarian school, represented by these and other authors, stand the socialist approach, which considers taxation as a means of redistribution of wealth to the benefit of the poor. They ultimately derive this philosophy from the 1840 answer, “It is robbery!” that French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865) gave to the question “What is property?” in his Qu’est-ce que la propriété? ou Recherche sur le principe du Droit et du Gouvernement.
Not unexpectedly, contemporary consensus lies in the middle. In fact, if no one wants to be robbed, especially by the state, which is supposed to protect citizens, it is also true that no one is so selfish to deny the principle of solidarity. For taxpayers, the real dividing line is the measure of the fiscal request. To say it differently, taxes do not raise controversy when they are even, fair, and clearly connected to a perceivable benefit, but are easily seen as unjust when they exert an excessive pressure upon citizens, are not clearly justified, serve a variety of cronyisms, redistribute wealth ideologically, move income from tax producers to a class of tax consumers, and create unacceptable limits to liberty.
But when can taxes be considered too high? When is the fiscal burden upon citizens too heavy? The answer depends on many circumstances: place, time, the social and economic conditions of a country, that country’s population, and so on. Even the peculiar history of a country is important.
But one simple point is indisputable. American businessman Dallas Hostetler invented the “Tax Freedom Day,” which calculates the first day of each year when citizens have earned enough income to pay their taxes, i.e., the day in which taxpayers start to work and earn for themselves and their families rather than for the state. This date of course differs from country to country. For example, in the fiscal year 2018, Italy celebrated its “Tax Freedom Day” on June 4, one of the worst situations in Europe. That means that all money earned before June 4 corresponded to the taxes an Italian citizen should pay for the year 2018. Only the money earned after June 4 was something Italian citizens could keep and use to support themselves.
Even if the border between bearable and unbearable taxes may be relative, it is obvious that having to pay half of one year’s income in taxes cannot be considered fair under any sun. If this is unfair, it is basically unjust. And when injustice is glaring, persecution is behind the corner, if it is not already marching.
This is what we can call “fiscal persecution by default.” It is a situation in which overburdened citizens are persecuted automatically, even when they are not individually targeted, by a system that curtails their economic freedom as an effect of a malfunctioning or an inefficient or corrupt fiscal machinery.
There is also another form of fiscal persecution, which is much more serious and does not operate by default. It comes when the state voluntarily imposes high costs on all or some of its citizens’ lives to positively limit their freedom for the sake of imposing its controlling power. This is a creeping absolutistic or crypto-totalitarian approach, typical of those democratic societies that do not truly value the liberty of their citizens. Absolutistic and totalitarian regimes do not need to mask their tyranny: they just impose it on their citizens, curtailing or denying all sorts of rights and liberties. Instead, those democratic societies that do not fully protect the liberty of their citizens need to hide their intentions and deeds, acting in disguise. Fiscal pressure is one of the favorite aspects of administrative persecution and control used by regimes that are democratic in name only. Administrative persecution comes when the state and its agencies, both national and local, obstruct the free exercise of their citizen’s right to life, private property, speech, assembly and worship through a plethora of rules and norms, mostly useless, which really aim at discouraging them from living freely and responsibly. It is an indirect approach that maximizes the gain for the state. And the modern state is so powerful that it cannot be really opposed.
Let me return to the Tai Ji Men case. This spiritual group has not only faced a daring administrative persecution for a quarter of a century, but the particular form of repression that they have suffered and suffer is openly unlawful. It is based on accusations that have been repeatedly declared as false by courts of law, yet continue to be used as a basis to persecute Tai Jim Men shifu and dizi.
Resistance to tyranny
Within the broader scenario of general administrative persecution, fiscal persecution looms in fact large and paramount. For the state, it is in fact quite easy to limit its own citizens’ liberties by using the “legal” weapon of social costs, social fees, social solidarity—and this also pays in terms of public image.
However, in the face of administrative and especially fiscal persecution, it is morally justified for citizens to resist and react. Labor laws in all democratic countries include a full body of norms protecting workers when it comes to payments denied, under the fundamental assumption that no one has the right to deny to workers the salary that is needed to support themselves and their families. Similarly, defending private property by protesting against an unbearable or exaggerate fiscal burden, or illegal tax bills, is an ethical duty and even an act of service to society at large. Because, to paraphrase Proudhon’s famous statement, exaggerate taxation is robbery.
There is another aspect that makes administrative persecution, and especially fiscal persecution, particularly distasteful. Again, the textbook case of Tai Ji Men illustrates this perfectly. Using its personnel, money, and structures for an illegal aim, a government, or some of its branches and officials, waste a huge amount of public resources that could and should be employed for better goals and for the common good of society. Since public resources are made available by the taxes paid by taxpayers, at the end of the day the state, or some of its branches and officials, become guilty of multiple robbery and suffering inflicted on citizens. The sorrow endured by Tai Ji Men and the seizure of their private property fully demonstrates the dire consequences of organized robbery.
The Tea Party in Boston
The most powerful country in the world today, and perhaps in all history, the United States of America, was born out of a fiscal revolt. In the 1770s, the slogan that resounded in the Continental Congress, but also in cities and villages, as well as in churches, was “No taxation without representation.” The American colonists did not claim that taxation was unjust per se, but that the right of the British parliament to tax Americans should have gone together with an adequate political representation of Americans in the Parliament in Westminster. The famous Tea Party, which took place in the Boston harbor on December 16, 1773, epitomized that revolt, and has remained a powerful symbol of resistance to tyranny, fiscal and other.
The principle “No taxation without representation” is an expression of the fundamental human right to liberty (the idea of not being governed without consensus), and parallels the principle that an exaggerate fiscal burden is tyranny.
Historians believe that more or less one third of the American colonists in the late 18th century shared the position of the Continental Congress, one third took the side of London, and one third remained indifferent. We may never know whether historians got these figures right, but one thing is certain. The large majority of those Americans who sided with the Continental Congress, one third of the total or not, wanted precisely what their slogan said, and nothing more: gain adequate political representation in London to continue enjoying the benefits guaranteed to every subject of the British Crown, along with their own American peculiarities. The key to all this was making taxation more reasonable.
In fact, driven by hunger for more power, Britain had imposed high tariffs on American trade, denying its own long-established history of political and commercial freedom and acting like an absolutist power despite its Magna-Carta-old tradition of civil liberties. Apart from a small minority advocating secession, originally the Americans aimed only at bringing London back to its political and cultural identity, which also granted a considerable measure of self-government to the colonists within the traditional “federal” architecture typical of Christian kingdoms and empires.
Taxes and religion
As we all know, at the end the American colonies seceded. But what truly matters here is the double-folded aspect of resistance to tyranny, especially fiscal tyranny within a democratic society, that those Americans of old showed to the world.
First, the American colonists’ protest against the tyranny of taxation was political in nature, but also deeply religious. This is clearly demonstrated in the important materials collected and edited in the two large volumes of Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805 that American scholar Elis Sandoz, a disciple of Eric Voegelin (1901–1985), published in 1991. They demonstrate that religious liberty is the true core business of resistance against fiscal tyranny, as indirect as this may appear.
After all, it is no secret that the Americans founded their political freedom upon religious liberty, understanding the latter as the first and core political human right. This principle is enshrined in their Bill of Rights attached to the country’s federal Constitution, but is also deeply rooted in a tradition of colonial self-government that London had for a long time granted—but lately denied. American scholars so diverse as Russell Kirk (1918–1994) and Murray N. Rothbard (1926–1995) documented it in two almost parallel works: respectively, the more than 500 pages of The Roots of American Order (1975) and the four volumes of Conceived in Liberty (1975–1979).
Secondly, the history of the revolt against taxation tyranny from which the Unites States were born serves as a paramount cautionary tale. The theme here is the form and limit that resistance and reaction to fiscal tyranny should take for keeping claims within the boundaries of justice, leading to a better, peaceful society rather than triggering a revolution.
As mentioned earlier, most of the American patriots had not independence in mind, but independence came. Historians believe that the cause was much more British stubbornness than the Americans’ will to secede. It means that ideas have consequences, as American intellectual Richard M. Weaver (1910–1963) famously said in his 1948 homonymous book, and consequences can be hard, unforeseen, and irreversible. I am not rewriting history here. I am just suggesting that political rulers should always carefully weight in advance the reactions that their deeds, and misdeeds, may ignite, before discovering that results may be extremely unpleasant.
Traditionally, protests against unbearable and tyrannical taxation have been pacific, at most manifesting themselves as civil disobedience. Tai Ji Men in Taiwan is a clear example of a peaceful reaction and lawful protest against a blatant abuse of power and flagrant injustice perpetrated by some government branches and officials in the fields of taxation and freedom of religion or belief.
States should always try to preserve social stability, an aim for which fiscal justice is needed. A state should confront social problems before they burst out, and eliminate causes of social unrest. This is a basic moral duty of a state. States should always be the first of the two litigants who seeks conciliation, because they have such an immense power in comparison to their citizens that every misdeed of a state, even the smallest one, is automatically magnified, and can cause immense damage.
The case of religious and spiritual groups that are persecuted fiscally and administratively, of which Tai Jim Men in Taiwan is one of the most important examples internationally, offers a clear confirmation of the consequences of the denial of tax justice. In The Tai Ji Men case, we see fiscal injustice at work, threatening freedom of religion or belief, confronted by a pacific and morally legitimate revolt that the state should immediately listen to, acknowledging its rightful claims.