The Power to Tax…

I really didn’t intend to obsess over the US government shutdown,
which is not of great importance.
However, while I was distracted catching up on some
pulp monarchist fiction,
@Outsideness has only gone and threatened to carry a modified form of
Montesqiueuan separation-of-powers
into the neoreactionary era.
I think that is a terrible mistake. The British, of course, were going
through the process of abandoning the separation of legislature and
executive while the US constitution was written — Queen Anne appointed
Tory Ministers in spite of Whig Parliaments, but by the 1830s this was
recognised to be unworkable, and any Prime Minister who could not win
a vote of confidence would resign. The legislature owned the
Against this, @Outsideness points out, reasonably, that the USA has
not been the worst-governed nation over the last couple of centuries,
so mere association with the treasonous blackguards of 1776 is not
quite sufficient to dispose of the idea of separating tax-raising and
policy into different bodies. If it is such a bad idea, how did the US
manage with it up until 2012?
One way is that, because both the House of Representatives and
President have both been elected by the same electorate, they have
tended to be mostly in step. The periods of “gridlock” when they have
been in opposition have generally been recognised as temporary, so the
limits of the powers of each side were not fully tested, both sides
assuming that a period of united government would follow at some
point. (It’s interesting that the concept of “gridlock” has
disappeared from the lexicon over the last six months — it is
something that can only happen to white presidents, not to The Holy
One. The disappearance of gridlock is one of the reasons I take the
current process to be a permanent shift in constitutional
Another has been the unusually legalistic attitude of Americans: more
than any Europeans, including British, they tend to accept that
something should be done just because it is the rule, whether or not
it iseems like a good idea. Presidents before Obama accepted that
they could not do much — certainly not anything very expensive —
against the will of Congress. The “balance of power” between the
executive and legislature could last as long as it was not tested.
The other reason why separation of powers worked longer in the US than
in Britain is that the US government was not always the government of
the US. In the division between the States and the Federal government,
the “Keep the lights on” functions were predominantly State concerns,
until the mid-20th Century.
The idea of assembling a government from independent self-perpetuating
institutions is not one I would dismiss out of hand. There are strong
echoes of the role of the medieval Church. But dividing the taxing
institution from the domestic policy-making institution is either a
sham or a shortcut to civil war.
Where, then, did it come from? My assumption has always been that the
origin of the House of Commons is that it embodied the people whose
active cooperation was needed in order to practically gather taxes in
11th to 16th Century England. The King ran his tax demands through
them because if they, out in the country, chose to be obstructive
about assessing and gathering the tax, he simply wasn’t going to get
any. The small to medium landowners handed over their portions to the
Royal Treasury without a fight because they knew that everyone else
was paying on the same basis, and they weren’t just being landed on
and raided, which is what it would look like if the King raised taxes
without going through any kind of collective.
By the time of King Charles the Martyr, it was no longer clear that
this was the case, and so Parliament’s control over taxation had gone
from being a practical physical power to being a constitutional
entitlement. As such, it could be lost and needed to be fought for.
Since the ensuing fight was, by my measure, where progressivism first
started to obtain power in the world — to become a party rather than
an occasional aspiration, I strongly suspect that the separation of
powers of taxation and executive is the worst idea in the world.
That is all.

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