Once upon a time there was a deficit. By our standards, it wouldn’t amount to much, but in its day, it was big enough and unruly enough that it managed to set historical forces in motion and we’re still hearing echoes of that little deficit today.
Now this little deficit, like all deficits, didn’t have a name of its own. It was just called “deficit.” And, like many other deficits, it was cultivated, nourished and born with the idea it would serve a good purpose. This particular deficit was meant to cover a war. Back in those days, it was sometimes believed that, among warring nations, the country that produced the biggest, fastest-growing deficit would win the war. So, when The Seven Years’ war broke out between England and France, England unleashed the biggest deficit it could and, sure enough, England’s deficit could whip France’s deficit and England won the war.
But one of the problems with deficits is that governments love them because they win wars and fund graft. Citizens hate them because it’s the citizens that have to feed the things — and they’re always hungry.
So, after The Seven Years’ War, the English government was looking for a way to feed its hungry little deficit. Some English citizens, who happened to be American colonists, said they’d be happy to help feed this ravenous little deficit, but they wanted to stop its growth and shrink it down to nothing. But the English government liked this deficit because it helped maintain a large army, which would be good for England in future wars. Also, there were many officers who were friends of members of the government and, if the deficit shrank, some cronies would lose their government jobs.
There was a lot of back-and-forth between the English government and the colonists about this until the government had enough. The colonists were informed that, since they were English citizens and were beneficiaries of the English victory in The Seven Years’ war, they were going to support this deficit whether they liked it or not. The colonists were told to shut up, buck up and pay up.
The English parliament passed The Stamp Act to raise revenue from the colonists that England could use to feed the deficit which would, then, allow England to maintain a large army on American soil. Now, The Stamp Act required that all official documents, newspapers and other printed materials must display an official government stamp, which, naturally, required the payment of a fee. Without that stamp, legal documents weren’t binding and other printed materials could be outlawed, seized and destroyed. Parliament believed the situation was in hand. The colonists, being good English citizens would, for all their grumbling, pay the bill. The deficit was happy but hungry.
Parliament had misjudged. The colonists didn’t passively accept. They rejected the English solution because they felt it was unfair to expect taxpayers to shoulder a fat deficit if they had no voice in creating that deficit and no voice in determining how to reduce it. So the colonists organized. There were widespread protests and universal colonial refusal to obey the law. They simply ignored the penalties threatened by The Stamp Act and refused to allow collection of the tax. England huffed, puffed, blustered and threatened, but the colonists stood firm. In the end, England had no choice but to repeal the tax and find another way to feed its deficit.
But there were two giant lessons standing in the aftermath of this struggle. One: If the citizens are convinced that the government is placing unfair burdens on the shoulders of its taxpayers, those citizens can exert enormous power if they organize and speak out. Two: Even law-abiding citizens can be pushed only so far before they get sick of feeding these monstrous deficits.
March 8 was the 245th anniversary of the day the English House of Lords passed The Stamp Act. It’s a good time to stop and think about the lessons we should learn from history.
For the next couple of weeks, this column will be written from Africa. Hink will be tagging along with Pros for Africa as they journey to Gulu in Uganda to help in rebuilding some of the damage caused by years of civil war. Take a look at the Pros for Africa and The Whitten Newman Foundation Web sites to see the good work these folks are doing. I’ll have more to say about this while I’m gone and when I get back.
For now, I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.
Wed, March 10, 2010
by Michael Hinkle