Vanity Fair’s sophisticated approach to rescuing a drowning man is this: Lecture him about how we all need plenty of water.
The tony mag’s new attack on the Tea Party is entitled “Debt and Dumb.” But the attack shows the authors and editors at VF to be the ones either deaf or dumb: Either deaf to what the Tea Partiers are really saying, or too dumb to understand them.
The article, written for VF by Simon Johnson and James Kwak, is the latest “progressive” effort to enlist the American Founding in their cause. Like many others, it unintentionally reveals that the authors and editors actually know very little about the Founding, and probably could care less.
The gist this time is that the Tea Party is undermining the foundations of American government by asserting that taxes are high enough and that public debt should be paid through spending cuts.
Much of the article is an account of why a federal taxing power was necessary to make the United States a viable nation. True, but how this is relevant to the Tea Party is a complete mystery. Few, if any, Tea Partiers are arguing that Congress should not have the power to tax. It’s the classic fallacy of arguing against a strawman.
The article tries to connect Tea Party protests to the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, when Pennsylvania farmers dodged a federal tax on spirits. But as far as I can see, there are fewer verified tax cheats in the modern Tea Party than in the Obama administration.
The article dismisses the Tea Party claim that the federal government is exceeding its constitutional powers, and cites in support the career of Alexander Hamilton.
In choosing an exemplar of constitutional meaning, VF could not have made a more inept selection. Hamilton’s views were not only out of the mainstream; they were diametrically opposed to the actual constitutional settlement.
For example, at the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton urged his fellow delegates to erect a national government with an executive and senate elected for life that could “pass all laws whatsoever.” When he failed to get his way, he went home. Toward the end of the convention he returned, but confessed on the floor his “dislike of the [Constitution’s] Scheme of Govt in General,” and admitted that “No man’s ideas were more remote from the plan than his own were known to be.” His unpublished notes, apparently written shortly after the Constitution was signed, reveal him scheming for a new administration that would “triumph altogether over the state governments and reduce them into an entire subordination, dividing the large states into smaller districts.”
During the ratification battle, Hamilton repeatedly represented the new government as one of limited authority, but once the document was safely ratified he switched his story and claimed the General Welfare Clause (I-8-1) was a fount of unlimited congressional spending power. Almost none of his contemporaries bought this argument.
In short, the choice of Hamilton as constitutional exemplar merely reveals the ignorance of the authors and the editors at Vanity Fair.
Anyway, it is not the congressional taxing power that Tea Partiers object to, but its abuse. Congress has repeatedly violated two constitutional restrictions on its taxing authority: (1) that taxes be limited to funding enumerated powers of government and (2) that, within those enumerated powers, taxes fund only expenditures for the “general Welfare” rather than for the welfare of localities or special interests.
The authors attack “the Tea Party’s preference for default over higher taxes.” Another strawman: Even if the debt limit had not been raised, there would have been no need for the U.S. to default on sovereign debt because there was been plenty of revenue to pay it. There also was enough revenue for other constitutional functions, such as national defense and the operations of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. What the feds would have had to cut (or at least defer payment for) were programs that were never constitutional in the first place.
Unfortunately, the folks at VF are too sophisticated to understand that taxes are like water: You need some, but too much can kill you.
In private life, Rob Natelson is a long-time conservative/free market activist, but professionally he is a constitutional scholar whose meticulous studies of the Constitution’s original meaning have been published or cited by many top law journals. (See www.umt.edu/law/faculty/natelson.htm.) Most recently, he co-authored The Origins of the Necessary and Proper Clause (Cambridge University Press) and The Original Constitution(Tenth Amendment Center). After a quarter of a century as Professor of Law at the University of Montana, he recently retired to work full time at Colorado’s Independence Institute.