Jonathan Mayhew

The American minister Jonathan Mayhew (October 8, 1720 – July 9, 1766) is credited with coining the phrase “No taxation without representation.”

My review of Nicholas Eberstadt’s A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic appears in the current issue of The City (currently available in print).

Eberstadt makes some important points about the sustainability of our society given current trends in our national polity. The most salient feature, contends Eberstadt, is that “the United States is at the verge of a symbolic threshold: the point at which more than half of all American households receive, and accept, transfer benefits from the government.” This Calvin & Hobbes cartoon captures the basic idea pretty well.

One possible response to the upside-down nature of a society with more takers than makers is to re-examine the link between taxation and representation. As I wrote in an Acton Commentary late last year,

“No taxation without representation” was a slogan taken up and popularized by this nation’s Founders, and this idea became an important animating principle of the American Revolution. But that was also an era when landowners had the primary responsibilities in civic life; theirs was the land that was taxed and so theirs too were the rights to vote and be represented. Thus went the logic. But the question that faces us now, nearly two and a half centuries later, is the flip side of the Revolutionary slogan: To what extent should there be representation without taxation?

In his review of Becoming Europe Theodore Dalrymple raises this same issue with respect to the problems that Gregg traces: “There is a simple conceptual solution to this corrupt and corrupting tendency: a constitutional change such that there should be no representation without taxation. After all, to allow people who are economically dependent on the government to vote is like allowing the CEOs of banks to fix their own remuneration.”

Dalrymple raises a couple of problems with this proposed solution, however, and the second is one I’d like to highlight, because it gets at the major issue with Eberstadt’s narrative. Dalrymple writes, “it is not altogether easy to distinguish those dependent upon the government and those independent of it.” Even the rather dizzying array of measures that Eberstadt uses is not quite sufficient, because, in part, the argument seems to assume that the amount of tax revenue a person generates for the government to be identical to that person’s contribution to society.

But this is too reductive by far. The government is not contiguous with society. As the political philosopher David Schmidtz has observed, “We sometimes speak as if the only way to ‘give back’ to society is by paying taxes, but any decent mechanic does more for society by fixing cars than by paying taxes.” Perhaps our conceptions of “making” and “taking” need some re-examination.

I thought Yuval Levin’s contribution was the highlight of A Nation of Takers, and this section makes the problem of conflating government and society quite clear:

In a free society, the government does not take the lead in shaping the citizens. Self-governing citizens are mostly shaped in that space between the individual and the state–that space where family, civil society, religion, culture, and the economy form our dispositions and proclivities. And the simultaneous invasion of that space by government and imposition on that space by government makes it very difficult for those forming institutions to function. Liberal democracy has always depended upon a kind of person it does not produce, and which must be formed by institutions that are not themselves liberal or political, but that are given room to function within our liberal society. The growth of our welfare state increasingly puts those fonts of the republican virtues in peril.