Bench Memos

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The Perennial Publius, part 30


Alexander Hamilton turns to the subject of taxation—again!—in Federalist No. 30.  But the essays have now moved into the topic of the powers granted to the new government to be created by the proposed Constitution.  And in keeping with his earlier declarations that a government worthy of the name must be unfettered in its power to pursue its legitimate purposes, Hamilton rebuts those who would confine the taxing power to certain methods or objects:

“Money is with propriety considered as the vital principle of the body politics; as that which sustains its life and motion, and enables it to perform its most essential functions.  A complete power therefore to procure a regular and adequate supply of revenue, as far as the resources of the community will permit, may be regarded as an indispensable ingredient in every constitution.”

This passage from the Federalist must have been missing from the copies used by the justices who held the federal income tax unconstitutional in 1895—an egregious decision that was corrected by the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913.  I’m bound to hear from readers who point out that there were issues in that case that I am eliding, and that’s right—but the initial error of the majority was in tacitly denying the truth of Hamilton’s dictum here.

The remainder of this essay plays out the implications of the principle.  But it’s worth reading, if only for the delight of seeing a man use the phrase “ignis fatuus” in a discussion of fiscal policy.

(For explanation of this recurring feature, see here.)

Tags: Franck


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