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Income Tax Myths

"Income tax is slavery."

Some protestors claim that requiring people to pay income tax amounts to slavery and is therefore forbidden by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

This argument is absurd. The slavery that was previously practised in the United States, and that is banned by the 13th Amendment, was a far cry from taxation.

Under slavery, the master owned the slave, controlled where the slave lived, and controlled what the slave was required to do -- usually work in the master's home or the master's fields.

Under taxation, people are free to live wherever they want and do whatever kind of work they want. Yes, they have to pay a portion of their income in taxes, but that's quite different from being told where to live and what work to do.

Another important distinction is that taxes are imposed through the democratic process. Slaves couldn't vote for a different master or different conditions if they thought their master was too harsh. But if U.S. taxpayers think that income taxes are too high, they can vote for representatives who will lower them, as has happened several times in recent decades.

So taxation is very different from slavery.

Some protestors nonetheless argue that taxation is slavery because, in their definition, slavery is any "non-ownership of one’s Person and Labor." By this definition, unless you're entitled to keep 100% of the fruits of your labor, you are (at least partially) a slave.

The first thing to notice about this definition is that they made it up. That's not what you will find if you look up "slave" or "slavery" in a dictionary. It's certainly not the definition of the term "slavery" as used in the Constitution's 13th Amendment.

Of course, if you just make up the definition, you can make slavery anything you want. I could say that "slavery" is "any situation in which I'm forced to do something I don't want to do," in which case having to wait at a red light when I want to keep going amounts to "slavery." Obviously, that definition would be ridiculous.

The fundamental problem with these made-up definitions is that they ignore the fact that some restraints on freedom are consistent with, and indeed essential to, the concept of a free society. Because humans live in society, they can never have complete freedom to do absolutely anything they want.

For example, society has to decide collectively whether people will drive on the right side of the road or the left side. Imagine what driving would be like if everyone decided this point individually. In order to be free to drive, we have to give up our freedom to decide which side of the road to drive on.

Similarly, it would be nice if you could just take anything you wanted. But if everyone else could do the same thing, we'd have to spend all our time guarding our property. To be free to enjoy our property, we have to give up our freedom to take the property of others.

So some restraint on freedom is essential to freedom itself. That's why there's a saying that laws are "the wise restraints that make us free."

Taxation is one of the restraints that is consistent with a free society. There are some things, such as roads and military defense, that wouldn't get done if we didn't pay for them collectively. They have to be paid for with some kind of tax. That's why taxation has been a hallmark of nearly all societies for a long time.

Of course, many people believe that the government takes too much in taxes and spends the money on foolish things. Doubtless that is at least partly true. But that doesn't transform taxation into slavery.

And again, it has no bearing on the meaning of the term "slavery" in the Constitution.