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 executive.

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 arrangements).

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.