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Archive for the ‘Civil Disobedience’ Category

I recently wrote a primer on the issue of tax evasion, which is illegal. I made the elementary point that low tax rates and a simple tax code are the best (and only good) way of promoting high levels of tax compliance.

Now let’s shift to the related topic of tax avoidance, which is legal. Unlike evasion, there’s no civil disobedience and no breaking of laws with tax avoidance. It simply means that taxpayers are taking advantage of provisions in the tax code that help protect income from the government.

And we all do it.

All these things I do to lower my taxes are legal.

As Judge Learned Hand correctly opined, nobody has any obligation to deliberately overpay the government.

Tax avoidance also is moral. Tax codes are corrupt and governments waste money, so anything that reduces the flow of revenue to the public sector is helpful.

With that in mind, I want to offer a hearty defense of Mr. Cameron from the United Kingdom. But I’m not referring to David Cameron, the current Prime Minister. Instead, I want to defend Ian Cameron, his late father.

The Financial Times has a summary of what Cameron’s father did to protect against punitive taxation.

Mr Cameron’s father, Ian, was one of the founder investors. Blairmore was incorporated in Panama but based in the Bahamas. The idea was for investors to avoid an extra layer of tax because investors came from lots of jurisdictions and some, at least, would have faced double taxation if the fund had been based in a mainstream jurisdiction — firstly by the country where the fund operated, and then by the investor’s own country when he or she received his profits. …In 1982, when Blairmore was set up, offshore funds were more tax-efficient than UK funds, on which investors had to pay tax annually. …It is also possible that investors avoided paying stamp duty — a tax on the transfer of documents, including share certificates — by using bearer shares, which were exempt from the duty.

I also want to defend David Cameron’s mother, who is still alive and engaging in tax avoidance, as noted by a column in the U.K.-based Times.

He also admitted receiving a lump sum of £200,000 from his mother in 2011, eight months after his father died in September 2010. The handout, which came on top of a £300,00 legacy, could allow Mr Cameron to avoid an £80,000 inheritance tax bill if his mother lives until 2018.

This is perfectly appropriate and legitimate tax planning, and also completely moral and economically beneficial since death taxes shouldn’t exist.

Now let’s consider why David Cameron’s parents decided to engage in tax avoidance. To understand his father’s motives, let’s look at the history of British tax rates, as reported by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in a survey of the U.K. tax system released last November.

In 1978–79, there was a starting rate of 25%, a basic rate of 33% and higher rates ranging from 40% to 83%. In addition, an investment income surcharge of 15% was applied to those with very high investment income, resulting in a maximum income tax rate of 98%.

In other words, David Cameron’s father had to deal with a tax code that basically stole all his money above a certain threshold. Much of his income was earned when the top rate was 98 percent. And when he set up his offshore structures, even after Thatcher’s early reforms, his top tax rate could have been as high as 75 percent.

I frequent use “confiscatory” when talking about tax systems that grab, say, 50 percent of the additional income being earned by taxpayers, but I’m simply expressing outrage at excessive taxation. In the case of 1970’s-era England, even a leftist presumably would agree that word applies to a system that seizes 75 percent-98 percent of a taxpayer’s income (though some British statists nonetheless will applaud because they think all income belongs to the government and some American leftists also will applaud because of spite).

By the way, let’s not forget that David Cameron’s father was presumably also aware that there was lots of double taxation in the United Kingdom because of other levies such as the corporate income tax, death tax, and capital gains tax. So I shudder to think about the effective marginal tax rate that may have applied to him and other taxpayers in the absence of tax planning (maybe they paid more than 100 percent, like the thousands of unfortunate French taxpayers victimized by that nation’s wretched tax system).

The bottom line if that I’m very sympathetic to Cameron’s father, who was simply doing what was best for his family and what was best for the economy.

But I’m not exactly bubbling over with sympathy for the Prime Minister, who appears to be a puerile and shallow hypocrite. I’ve previously shared examples of his government browbeating taxpayers who don’t choose to needlessly give extra money to the government.

And now he’s caught is his own web of demagoguery.

Writing in the U.K.-based Sunday Times, Dominic Lawson has an appropriately jaundiced perspective.

Jimmy Carr must be laughing. In June 2012 the comedian was revealed by The Times as one of a number of showbiz folk to have invested in a scheme that had the effect of minimising the tax paid on their (typically volatile) income. Somehow unable to resist commenting on this story, David Cameron…told journalists that Carr’s behaviour had been “morally wrong”. …In other words: the people are angry and the prime minister wants to be with the pitchfork-waving crowd, not on the other side of the barricades. …now the PM is himself the subject of a whipped-up storm of fury… That is why, in my column of June 24, 2012 (“Cameron’s the clown in this Carr sketch”), there appeared these words: “The prime minister could not resist accusing Carr of ‘morally wrong’ behaviour, a piece of headline-grabbing he will have cause to regret.” …As a result, Cameron has now felt forced to become the first prime minister to make his tax details open to the electorate. It’s a sort of ritual humiliation, but one that will in no way appease those who regard the very idea of personal wealth as immoral. He should never have pandered to them.

Janet Daly of the U.K.-based Telegraph is similarly unimpressed with Cameron’s shallow posturing.

…there is a great mass of voters…who are very susceptible to the impression that Mr Cameron is a rich man who may possibly be a hypocrite when he denounces the tax-avoiding wealthy. …The Prime Minister and his Chancellor had put themselves in the forefront of the assault on “the rich”. This was the modern Conservative party…a major rhetorical revolution that took dangerous liberties with the vocabulary of what was being discussed. The Government began to obscure the difference between tax evasion, which is a crime, and tax avoidance…George Osborne invented a new category of sin called “aggressive tax avoidance”. This was a far nastier, more elaborate form of financial planning… Some kinds of tax avoidance are OK but other kinds are not, and the difference between them is, well, basically a matter of what kind of person you are – which is for the Government to decide. …Mr Cameron says…he has done nothing illegal or unusual… Nor, apparently, have most of the people whose private finances have been revealed to the world in the Panama Papers. …free societies should not create moral “crimes” that can put people beyond the pale when they have done nothing illegal. Mr Cameron may be about to conclude that himself.

By the way, Cameron and his people are not very good liars. Here are some more excerpts from the Times column I cited above, which explained how his mother is transferring assets to David in ways that will avoid the awful death tax.

Government sources pushed back yesterday against claims that the arrangement was a tax dodge. …“Every year hundreds of thousands of parents give money to their children,” a No 10 source said. “To suggest that by giving money to the prime minister there is somehow a tax dodge is extraordinary.” A No 10 spokesman said: “This is in no way linked to tax avoidance and it would be wrong to suggest otherwise.”

This is bollocks, as the English would say. If there was no desire to avoid an unfair and pernicious tax, Cameron’s mother could have left him that money upon her death.

Instead, she made a gift for purposes of hopefully keeping any extra money if her family rather than letting the government grab it. David Cameron should proudly embrace this modest bit of tax avoidance.

It’s definitely what I would do if I ever get to the point where I had enough money to worry about the death tax. Sadly, I don’t expect that to happen because it’s not easy for policy wonks to earn large amounts of money.

But if I ever find a big pot of money that will be around after my death, I know that I’ll want my children and the Cato Institute to be the beneficiaries, not a bunch of greedy and wasteful politicians (sorry to be redundant).

Heck, I’d leave my money to my cats before giving it to the corrupt crowd in Washington.

P.S. Rich leftists often say they want to pay higher taxes, yet they change their tune when presented with the opportunity to voluntarily give more of their money to Washington.

P.P.S. Since I quoted Judge Learned Hand on tax avoidance, I’m almost certain to get feedback from my leftist friends about the quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes about taxes being the price we pay for civilization. Allow me to preempt them by noting that Justice Holmes made that remark when the federal government consumed about 5 percent of our economy. As I wrote in 2013, “I’ll gladly pay for that amount of civilization.”

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Two years ago, I shared a map looking at how heavily wine was taxed in different states.

What is showed was that you shouldn’t sip your Chardonnay or guzzle your Merlot in Kentucky. Unless, of course, you wanted to give politicians a lot more money to spend (or you slip across the border like Michael J. Rodrigues when buying booze).

Now the good people at the Tax Foundation have a related map. It shows which states have the highest and lowest taxes on beer.

Kentucky is still a high-tax state, but the “winner” of the beer tax contest is Tennessee.

At the risk of drawing too many conclusions, it does appear that southeastern states generally have high taxes on booze. Along with Alaska.

Maybe that’s a “Bible Belt” phenomenon. Though I’m somewhat forgiving of Tennessee for high excise taxes since the Volunteer State at least avoids the huge mistake of imposing an income tax on the wages and salaries of residents. No wonder it’s been growing faster than neighboring states.

Returning to the main topic, the Tax Foundation explains, taxes amount to a big share of the final price.

The Beer Institute points out that “taxes are the single most expensive ingredient in beer, costing more than labor and raw materials combined.” They cite an economic analysis that found “if all the taxes levied on the production, distribution, and retailing of beer are added up, they amount to more than 40% of the retail price.”

P.S. Since we’re looking at states, I can’t resist sharing bad news from one state and good news from another state.

We’ll start with some grim news from Minnesota. I’ve already commented on the insanity of using the State Department’s refugee program to subsidize terrorists.

Well, the Daily Caller reports that terrorists also have learned to bilk other programs to finance that hate of the modern world.

Two Somali-American men living in Minnesota are facing fraud charges — in addition to terrorism charges — after they allegedly used federal student loan money to purchase airline tickets to get them to Syria in order to join ISIS. …

This doesn’t quite entitle them to join the Moocher Hall of Fame, but it should outrage taxpayers anyhow.

Our good news come  from California.

J.D. Tuccille of Reason speculates that gun control has basically become impossible in the Golden State because there are simply too many guns.

California is a state where officials pride themselves on tightening the screws on gun owners. …But it’s a losing battle. Even in a political environment where villainizing guns and gun owners is a winning tactic, the ranks of the same are beyond officials’ grasp, and growing. Last year, almost one million firearms were sold in the state…it’s a good bet that California’s gun owners, and their guns, are here to stay.

Here’s a chart he including showing gun sales.

And J.D. reminds us that these are just the legal sales. As illustrated by the amusing t-shirt at the bottom of this post, there are doubtlessly lots of undocumented weapons in the state.

The bottom line is that future gun control efforts in California will probably run into the same problems that have thwarted the schemes of despicable politicians in Connecticut. Three cheers for the Americans who disobey bad law!

And since it’s Memorial Day weekend, it’s a good time to be thankful the all the folks in the military who fought to preserve our freedoms. Including the freedom to engage in civil disobedience when politicians try to trample our rights.

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Civil disobedience is a powerful and traditional way for Americans to resist bad government policy.

The most famous example is the way civil rights leaders used disobedience (and armed self defense) to help end the Jim Crow laws imposed by state governments.

It’s also encouraging that gun owners have no intention of obeying bad gun control laws, with evidence of massive resistance to bad laws in states such as Connecticut, Colorado, and New York.

And motorists ended the use of speed (i.e., revenue) cameras in Arizona in part by simply ignoring the fines that arrived in the mail (folks in Houston needed to use a referendum).

These are encouraging stories, but we also need to be realistic about the fact that most Americans meekly comply with lots of other bad laws and regulations imposed by greedy and overbearing governments.

The regulatory burden in the United States has become absurd, for instance, but it’s difficult to envision a successful strategy to resist various bureaucratic impositions.

Until now.

The great scholar Charles Murray has a column in the Wall Street Journal about fighting back against the regulatory state.

He begins with a very depressing assessment.

America is no longer the land of the free. We are still free in the sense that Norwegians, Germans and Italians are free. But that’s not what Americans used to mean by freedom. It was our boast that in America, unlike in any other country, you could live your life as you saw fit as long as you accorded the same liberty to everyone else. …with FDR’s New Deal and the rise of the modern regulatory state, our founding principle was subordinated to other priorities and agendas. What made America unique first blurred, then faded, and today is almost gone.

In some sense, we’ve been buried by red tape.

…consider just the federal government. The number of federal crimes you could commit as of 2007 (the last year they were tallied) was about 4,450, a 50% increase since just 1980. A comparative handful of those crimes are “malum in se”—bad in themselves. The rest are “malum prohibitum”—crimes because the government disapproves.

This is something that we’ve already discussed. I made the distinction just the other day between real crimes (which involve an infringement on someone else’s life, liberty, and property) and innocent behavior that is criminalized by government.

But it’s even worse when folks have no idea how to be compliant.

Everyone knows how to obey the laws against robbery. No individual can know how to “obey” laws such as Sarbanes-Oxley (810 pages), the Affordable Care Act (1,024 pages) or Dodd-Frank (2,300 pages). We submit to them. The laws passed by Congress are just the beginning. In 2013, the Code of Federal Regulations numbered over 175,000 pages.

Especially when constitutional protections are weakened.

It gets worse. If a regulatory agency comes after you, forget about juries, proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, disinterested judges and other rights that are part of due process in ordinary courts. The “administrative courts” through which the regulatory agencies impose their will are run by the regulatory agencies themselves, much as if the police department could make up its own laws and then employ its own prosecutors, judges and courts of appeals.

And the insult to injury is that many regulations make no sense.

Regulations that waste our time and money are bad enough. Worse are the regulations that prevent us from doing our jobs as well as we could—regulations that impede architects from designing the most functional and beautiful buildings that would fit their clients’ needs, impede physicians from exercising their best judgment about their patients’ treatment, or impede businesses from identifying the best candidates for job openings. …Public-school teachers typically labor under regulatory regimes that prescribe not only the curriculum but minutely spell out how that curriculum must be taught—an infantilization of teachers that drives many of the best ones from the public schools.

So what’s the solution?

You can fight these bureaucrats in their kangaroo courts, or maybe even force the case into a real court.

But Murray acknowledges that this is prohibitively expensive.

…when the targets of the regulatory state say they’ve had enough, that they will fight it in court, the bureaucrats can—and do—say to them, “Try that, and we’ll ruin you.”

Charles has an idea of how to overcome this problem.

…the regulatory state is the Wizard of Oz: fearsome when its booming voice is directed against any single target but, when the curtain is pulled aside, revealed as impotent to enforce its thousands of rules against widespread refusal to comply. And so my modest proposal: Let’s withhold that compliance through systematic civil disobedience. Not for all regulations, but for the pointless, stupid and tyrannical ones.

More specifically.

…it should be OK to ignore the EPA when it uses a nonsensical definition of “wetlands” to forbid you from building a home on a two-thirds-acre lot sandwiched between other houses and a paved road…there’s no reason for the government to second-guess employer and employee choices on issues involving working hours and conditions that don’t rise to meaningful definitions of “exploitation” or “unsafe.” …Let’s just ignore them and go on about our lives as if they didn’t exist.

That’s sounds nice, but how does one overcome the risk of discriminatory and abusive prosecution and persecution by miffed bureaucrats?

Here’s the clever proposal Charles has for the private sector.

Let’s treat government as an insurable hazard, like tornadoes. …let’s buy insurance that reimburses us for any fine that the government levies and that automatically triggers a proactive, tenacious legal defense against the government’s allegation even if—and this is crucial—we are technically guilty. Why litigate an allegation even if we are technically guilty? To create a disincentive for overzealous regulators. The goal is to empower citizens to say, “If you come after me, it’s going to cost your office a lot of time and trouble, and probably some bad publicity.”

People presumably will be willing to fight if they have some free talent coming to their defense.

I propose…a legal foundation functioning much as the Legal Services Corporation does for the poor, except that its money will come from private donors, not the government. It would be an altruistic endeavor, operating exclusively on behalf of the homeowner or small business being harassed by the regulators. The foundation would pick up all the legal costs of the defense and pay the fines when possible.

Here’s the bottom line.

The measures I propose won’t get the regulations off the books, nor will they improve the content of those regulations, but they will push the regulatory agencies, kicking and screaming, toward a “no harm, no foul” regime. They will be forced to let the American people play.

And if you want to see this strategy in the form of a picto-graph, this is a very helpful depiction.

I mentioned yesterday that I was in Poland for a Liberty Fund conference.

After the conference, I had the opportunity to visit the Solidarity Museum, which commemorated the 1980 protests against communism at the Gdansk shipyards.

Here’s an image that warmed my heart. One of the rooms had a tape of Poland’s communist dictator announcing martial law. Here’s a screen capture of him saying there’s no turning back from socialism.

Gee, that didn’t turn out to be the case.

Indeed, Poland is now a reasonably good example of how markets enable higher living standards.

And that speech should be a permanent memorial about the evil of communism. And if you want further reminders, click here, here, and here.

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One of the most important bulwarks of a just society is equal justice under law.

That principle is even etched in stone above the entrance to the Supreme Court.

My belief in equal treatment is one of the reasons I support the flat tax. As an economist, I like the pro-growth impact of tax reform. But as someone who believes in justice, I also support the flat tax because I don’t like class-warfare policies that punish some taxpayers and corrupt loopholes that give preferential status to other taxpayers.

Indeed, my support for equality of law is so strong that I even object to policies that benefit me, such as special TSA lines in airports for frequent flyers.

But sometimes it’s not clear how a principle should be applied. So let’s revive the “you be the judge” series, which asks thorny questions about the workings of a free society, and explore the case of income-based traffic fines.

Check out these excerpts from a BBC story.

Finland’s speeding fines are linked to income, with penalties calculated on daily earnings, meaning high earners get hit with bigger penalties for breaking the law. So, when businessman Reima Kuisla was caught doing 103km/h (64mph) in an area where the speed limit is 80km/h (50mph), authorities turned to his 2013 tax return, the Iltalehti newspaper reports. He earned 6.5m euros (£4.72m) that year, so was told to hand over 54,000 euros. …Mr Kuisla might be grateful he doesn’t earn more. In 2002, an executive at Nokia was slapped with a 116,000-euro fine for speeding on his Harley Davidson motorbike. His penalty was based on a salary of 14m euros.

So is this a case of greedy government targeting people for the sin of success?

Well, I’m sure the government is greedy, but what about the morality of income-based fines?

The driver isn’t happy, but others argue that deterrence doesn’t work unless the actual impact of the fine is the same for rich and poor alike.

The scale of the fine hasn’t gone down well with Mr Kuisla. “Ten years ago I wouldn’t have believed that I would seriously consider moving abroad,” he says on his Facebook page. “Finland is impossible to live in for certain kinds of people who have high incomes and wealth.” There’s little sympathy from his fellow Finns on social media. …person says: “Small fines won’t deter the rich – fines have to ‘bite’ everyone the same way.”

At the risk of sounding like a soft-headed leftist, I’m not overly sympathetic to Mr. Kuisla’s position.

Simply stated, if the goal of traffic fines is deterrence, then the penalties should vary with income.

I remember when I was young, living on a paycheck-to-paycheck basis, a traffic fine sometimes would chew up a non-trivial part of my disposable income. That affected my behavior.

Now that I’m older and making more money (and especially since my kids are mostly done with their schooling!), a traffic fine is just a nuisance (though I still sometimes get very upset).

Though this discussion wouldn’t be complete without also considering the fact that traffic laws and enforcement oftentimes are motivated by revenue rather than safety.

The most compelling evidence comes from Ferguson, Missouri. It seems that what’s driving the mistreatment of black people is government greed.

Here’s some of what Ian Tuttle wrote on the topic for National Review.

The Department of Justice’s “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department,” released this week…what the material in the report reveals is less a culture of racial animus than one of predatory government: “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices,” states the report, “are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.” …myriad municipal regulations that, rigorously enforced, nickel-and-dime the citizenry to the local government’s benefit. This is the injustice on which the Justice Department has stumbled, which helps to explain the city’s racial tensions — and which merits urgent correction.

I fully understand why many blacks in Ferguson are angry.

Imagine if you had a modest income and you were constantly being hit with $50 and $100 fines (oftentimes then made much larger thanks to the scam of “court fees”).

This can wreck a family’s budget when it doesn’t have much money. So wouldn’t you be upset?

Particularly since “predatory government” is a very good description of the Ferguson bureaucracy.

In 2010, the city’s finance director encouraged Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson to “ramp up” ticket-writing to help mitigate an anticipated sales-tax shortfall. …One stop can yield six or eight citations, and officers have been known to compete to set single-stop records. Indeed, within Ferguson Police Department, because opportunities for promotion have been tied to “productivity” — that is, enthusiasm for ticket-writing — officers have perverse incentives to issue citations, and in concert with police and prosecutors, municipal courts regularly enforce the payment of fines in a way that compounds what a single defendant owes.

Now let’s connect Ferguson with Finland.

Our Finnish driver is upset by his giant fine, but at least he probably can relate to the poor people of Ferguson.

But the more successful people of Ferguson, to the extent that they are even targeted by the local cops, have almost nothing to worry about.

…this practice — of police and prosecutors and courts together — disproportionately affects black communities not because they are black, but because they are poor. They do not have the means to escape the justice apparatus, unlike the comparatively wealthy, who can pay a fine and be done with the matter — or hire an attorney, and inconvenience courts that prefer the ease of collecting fees to the challenge of arbitrating cases.

Here’s the bottom line.

If we want a just society, there should be few laws and they should be enforced on the basis of protecting public safety rather than enriching the bureaucracy.

In such a system, income-based fines and penalties are a reasonable way of making sure deterrence applies equally to rich and poor.

Unfortunately, we have far too many laws and they are used as back-door taxes on the citizenry.

So if we adopt income-based fines, the politicians will simply have more money to spend and even less incentive to scale back excessive and thuggish government.

Heck, just look at how asset-forfeiture laws and money-laundering laws have turned into revenue scams for Leviathan.

P.S. Since today’s post ended with a depressing conclusion, let’s share some a bit of offsetting good news.

As reported by The Hill, the spirit of civil disobedience lives even in Washington!

From sledding to snowball fights, dozens of children and their parents took to Capitol Hill Thursday afternoon to protest a controversial sledding ban. Capitol Police have refused to lift the sledding ban, but some parents organized a “sled in” on the west lawn of the Capitol to put a spotlight on the unpopular rule. …Capitol Police pointed out that more than 20,000 sledding injuries occur in the U.S. each year…, but officers on the ground also refused to enforce it. …It’s turning into a public relations nightmare for those who oppose sledding and support the ban.

You’ll doubtlessly be horrified to learn that illegal sledding is – gasp! – a gateway crime to other forms of misbehavior.

…the children were not only sledding but also climbing trees, building snowmen and throwing snowballs at one another.

Oh My God, unlicensed snowmen, unregistered tree climbing, and illegal snowballs! Freedom is obviously too dangerous.

Next thing you know, these kids will grow up to engage in other forms of civil disobedience, just like Arizona drivers and Connecticut gun owners.

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