April 18 was tax day in America this year. Normally a day of lamentation, the contrarians at Slate decided to celebrate the occasion by commissioning a tax law expert to argue that “modern Western democracy is nothing more than a byproduct of a series of tax disputes”.
This is…not right.
While we would never presume to explain the origins of representative government in a single blog post, we think it’s worth highlighting a few alternative theories.
Start by considering why the “tax disputes” highlighted by Professor Chodorow emerged in the first place.
In all three cases he mentions — the Magna Carta, America’s resistance to the Stamp Act and Townshend Acts, and the creation of the US Constitution — the government was trying to extract more from its people to pay for increasingly destructive wars. Greater influence on future decisions would be the compensation for paying up now.
This didn’t always work. Anyone familiar with the history of the Magna Carta knows that King John had his deal revoked almost immediately — with the help of the Pope — and plunged England into civil war. The barons had to repeatedly win wars against the monarchy over the course of centuries to establish the supremacy of Parliament. Nowadays the Magna Carta is irrelevant to UK law as actually practiced.
American colonists, meanwhile, would have been perplexed by the claim that their capacity for self-government was a response to odious taxes. Self-government and relative independence from Britain were things they had brought with them, in various forms, in the 1600s. Many would have been unwilling to pay more tax even if they could get seats in Westminster, since they knew they would be outnumbered by the English. The revolutionaries were incensed by the perceived change in their status. They were fighting (in part)