Reference points are important. Without them, it is difficult to say whether you are moving forward or backward, succeeding or failing; without them you cannot really measure progress toward a goal.
Isn’t this true of most things? Weight loss programs measure pounds and inches. Budgets measure cash flow. Grades measure student achievement. Nurses take blood pressure. These baselines give us an objectively true assessment when opinion just isn’t good enough.
There is a reason we want objective rather than subjective measurements: subjective ideas are based on what we call normal. “Normal” as an adjective, describes life as we know it. Definitions of “normal” are as varied as our life experiences. Here’s the problem — how can you tell when “normal” is a good thing, and when it isn’t?
Some very important things — like how to run a country or a culture — are difficult to squeeze into rigid objective standards. But they still need assessing, right?
Against what standard would you measure the following questions: How big should government be? Are we getting value for money for what the State does? How should we balance the roles of the State and Individual? What should taxation look like? How much is too much?
Let’s narrow this down to just one case: the taxation question — how much is appropriate? International comparisons aren’t much help — the other guys are all over the map. Greece is trying to collapse. France wants a 75% tax on their wealthiest people. Is this proper or unjust? Are they caring for the underprivileged, or abusing personal rights? In countries like Bermuda you pay little or nothing in taxes. Is that better or worse? Why?
A very helpful, but often overlooked, reference point is history. We have the advantage of surveying time to see which policies have been tried, examining their eventual outcomes and unintended consequences. We can truly learn from the mistakes of others, instead of the hard way.
History has preserved for us a nation facing a cultural pivot point, specifically a famine, together with their choices and outcomes. During the life of Joseph, a serious famine struck the Middle East. Egypt — unlike its neighbors — had significant grain reserves laid aside. When grain ran out for the Egyptian populace, they bought it from Pharaoh. (The money went to his palace.) When funds ran out, they traded livestock for food. That, too ran out. Things getting desperate, we pick up the story in Genesis 47, verses 18-21 with the people pleading:
“We cannot hide from our lord the fact that since our money is gone and our livestock belongs to you, there is nothing left for our lord except our bodies and our land. Why should we perish before your eyes —we and our land as well? Buy us and our land in exchange for food, and we with our land will be in bondage to Pharaoh. Give us seed so that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become desolate.” So Joseph bought all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh. The Egyptians, one and all, sold their fields, because the famine was too severe for them. The land became Pharaoh’s, and Joseph reduced the people to servitude, from one end of Egypt to the other. (emphasis added)
Egypt — at that point in history — became a nation of slaves. We have in their own words “we with our land will be in bondage to Pharaoh”. Bondage is a strong term. What did they mean when they said it?
First, they now worked for their government, not themselves: “Now that I have bought you and your land today for Pharaoh, here is seed for you so you can plant the ground.” (verse 23) The bumper-sticker on the chariots could have read: “Government-mandated work: the original shovel-ready program.”
Second was the taxation that came with their labors. Because they worked for the government, they could no longer keep their own harvest. A portion now belonged to Pharaoh. “You have saved our lives. May we find favor in the eyes of our lord; we will be in bondage to Pharaoh.” (verse 25) Here, they again called it bondage, and their answer sounds a lot like “Hey, it sucks, but it beats starving.”
So how heavy was the tax burden of the Egyptian bondage? A lot. Four fifths of their entire harvest. Sorry, that’s not right. Four-fifths was what they were permitted to keep and live on. One fifth is what the Government actually took. A little quick math and … wait, that’s twenty percent! The Egyptian people who payed the government 20% of their income described that relationship as bondage.
Let’s recap our own history. Until 1861, USA had no personal income tax. After that, it took the 16th Amendment in 1913 make it permanent. The top tax rate back then was 7%. (Canada had no personal income tax until WWI, and that was supposed to be a “temporary measure”. Lesson? Be highly skeptical of “temporary” taxes.)
Egypt, in bondage to Pharaoh paid 20%. Americans in 1913 paid 7%.
So, tell me, Free Citizen … what does your tax bracket look like?
Image: Joseph Dwelleth in Egypt, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot; http://www.thejewishmuseum.org/onlinecollection; the public domain: copyright expired.