Busting Through Our Dysfunctional Political Consensus With the Wisdom of Alexander Hamilton

For six-plus months, Greve, you’ve been yapping and yammering about the institutional causes of our political and economic malaise. Let’s say you’re right: what’s your solution?

I’m deeply suspicious of anyone bearing solutions (including myself), but here’s an idea:

Amendment XXVIII. For any fiscal year in which federal outlays exceed federal revenues, the IRS shall assess and collect a national head tax sufficient to cover the shortfall unless two-thirds of both houses of Congress vote to suspend the tax for that fiscal year.

You can noodle with the language (e.g., call the tax an “individual responsibility mandate”) so long as you remain true to the basic idea. Our supposedly polarized politics actually rests on a firm, near-universal consensus: let’s have a gargantuan transfer state, and not pay for it. Neither presidential aspirant nor any other public official or soi disant intellectual has the nerve to challenge that consensus. Unless we break it, though, our politics and our economic fortunes will go from bad to worse.

Harsh though it sounds, the idea has a respectable political-intellectual ancestry. We have, a famous American wrote long ago in a similar predicament, just about hit bottom: we can’t pay our bills, and nobody trusts or respects us. Our politics is petty and dispiriting; even dogs can’t breathe in this atmosphere. The principal solution is to enhance the tax capacity of the national government—to create a responsible government that can tax anyone and anything (except state exports), at any rate and for any purpose. That’s what this Constitution does. You can favor it, or you can be against it. But don’t tell me about piecemeal “reform”: it’s delusional.  If you want a respectable government, you’ll have to pay for it. Signed, Alexander Hamilton.

At variance with the great Mr. Hamilton, Amendment XXVIII doesn’t mean (and I’m not suggesting) that we should pay back the national debt, let alone assume the states’ debts. The sums are too large; we’re not that honorable; and we have a luxury Hamilton & Co. didn’t have: we can (and will) print our own money and inflate the debt away. The Amendment would simply guard against future deficits, and against the clear and present danger that we will run out of idiots who will lend us yet more money.

For the current Fiscal Year, the tax would work out to $4,250 for each man, woman, and child in the country. We voted for that government; now, send us the bill.

Michael S. Greve

Michael S. Greve is a professor at George Mason University School of Law. From 2000 to August, 2012, Professor Greve was the John G. Searle Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he remains a visiting scholar. His most recent book is The Upside-Down Constitution (Harvard University Press, 2012).

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  1. Daniel Artz says

    Great idea! I would offer to tweak the language just a bit — “unless two-thirds of both houses of Congress vote to suspend the tax, in whole or in part, for that year, in which event the remuneration for all members of the Congress voting for any such suspension shall be reduced (but not below zero) by an amount equal to five (5) times the per capita amount of such tax to be suspended.”

    For those members of Congress willing to vote to suspend, let’s make them put their own money at risk.

  2. John Aronson says

    A miserable, federalist sort idea and so the appeal to the memory of Alexander Hamilton is appropriate.

    The last line is telling. As long as the United States is the least representative country in the world, at least among those countries that like to call themselves function democracies, blaming the voters is just cheesy. Congress looks like nothing so much as the collection of English rotten borough constituencies that returned one corrupt, self serving Parliament after another for 300 years.

    Get rid of the Senate, triple the size of the House and sharply reduce Federal authority under the commerce clause and then maybe you can start blaming the voters.

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