Friday, 12 February 2010

Tax, tea, tolls and small government

It’s a commonplace, but no less true for all that, that there are two way of thinking of the American Revolution.

The first is the most obvious: the Americans rose in defence of fundamental human rights. It’s all about Thomas Jefferson’s thinking in those wonderful phrases of his about the equal creation of all men and the unalienable rights that flow from it.

Of course, it really was men who were treated as being created equal at the time, not women, and it was white men to boot. The Jeffersonian programme was really more of a work in progress than an achievement. A bloody civil war, the women’s suffrage movement at the start of the twentieth century and the civil rights movement in the sixties, has extended human rights far further than in Jefferson’s own days. On the other hand, anyone who thinks that, say, Michael Bloomberg is the equal of the Hispanic waiter serving him his meal, is badly in need of having a naivety gland excised.

The other way of interpreting the American Revolution is as an uprising of white middle class men who loved their guns and hated taxes. The revolutionary cry ‘No taxation without representation’ wasn’t just about representation, the concern of the democrats, but also about avoiding taxation. This all came to a head when a group dressed up as Native Americans – or, as they would have said, Indians – tipped a shipload of tea into Boston harbour.

Incidentally, to this day, if you order a cup of tea in the States, you’re likely to be served a cup of water which once was boiling and a teabag. Now one forgives that in France or Germany, coffee-drinking nations which know nothing about the need for boiling water to have tea infuse properly, but the US must once have known better. I wonder whether this seminal moment in 1773, the famous Boston Tea Party, when they committed the sacrilege of putting tea into cold water, killed their tea-making skills forever?

Just as the Jeffersonian current of the revolution has continued to this day, so the other tax-averse current still looms large. Indeed, it has taken new form in the tea party movement, consciously named after the Boston incident, and which held its first convention in Nashville last weekend.

My father used to tell an anecdote about the States which deserves to be true even if it isn’t. It seems that John F. Kennedy once held a dinner for Nobel Prize winners in the White House.

‘Never has this room seen so much intellectual power gathered together,’ he told them, ‘since Thomas Jefferson last dined here alone.’

Given that the keynote speaker at the tea party convention was Sarah Palin, we probably have a pretty neat measure of the intellectual difference between the Jeffersonian and tax-and-guns trends of the American Revolution.

Not that the two trends are incompatible. The tea party types want small government, and the great libertarian Henry Thoreau wrote words that are often, and understandably, attributed to Jefferson or even Thomas Paine: ‘That government is best which governs least’. It’s a view I share: the intrusive state that wants to know what I do in my home, on the internet, or even on the street while peacefully minding my own business, gets deeply on my nerves.

But you have to draw the line somewhere. Surely shrinking government has gone too far when things get to the pass reached in Colorado Springs, as detailed in a great news item sent me by my old friend Alasdhair Campbell.

It describes how falling tax revenues and the refusal of the citizens to pay any more, are leading to library closures, parks being left to go to seed and, if the rains fail, turn brown, while even the fire and police services are cut back.

Alasdhair is equally irritated by the proliferation of toll roads in his own home state of Texas. The truth is that you can be as opposed to taxes as you wish, and none of us actually wants to pay more taxes, but if you want the services you have to pay for them some way or another. If not through tax, then you’ll pay for them some other way, for instance in tolls, or you’ll do without them.

The two trends that inspired the Revolution are still in full force today. But just at the moment, the popularity of the tea party crowd suggests that the tax-haters are on a bit of a high. Which make the Colorado Springs and Texas toll road cases pretty topical, as cautionary tales.

The irony is that this thinking doesn’t even deliver small government. Preventing healthcare becoming public has left one in eight US citizens without cover, inside the most expensive system in the world.

And guess which government around the world costs most per head of its population?

Too obvious, is it?

PS The legacy of Jefferson, the great revolutionary, lives on in the States. In Britain, the Court of Appeal this week ordered the disclosure of information about the torture, under CIA supervision and allegedly with the complicity of British intelligence, of a British resident suspected of terrorism. The judges ordered the publication though the information came from the CIA under conditions of strict confidentiality.

The comment from Washington – and from Obama’s White House, no less? If a British court can order the publication of confidential US documents, then that puts the intelligence relationship between the two countries under strain.

Get this right: a court of law orders the publication of information about a criminal act committed by the British and US governments.

And it’s the court that’s in the wrong?

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