My daddy he made whiskey, my granddaddy he did, too. We ain’t paid no whiskey tax since 1792. — From “Copper Kettle,” a song by Frank Beddoe, 1946
In one of the first big tests of his presidency, George Washington was confronted with a rebellion in the heartland. Farmers in western Pennsylvania balked at paying a federal tax on distilled spirits enacted in 1791 so the new government could retire its revolutionary War debts.
Those spirits, especially whiskey, had been a source of livelihood for generations, and was even a medium of exchange in some areas. The farmers resented “taxation without local representation” (their emphasis), which they believed they had fought a war to end, and they were further offended that large distillers, most in the East, got what amounted to a huge tax break.
Participants in the Whiskey Rebellion quickly moved from protest to violence, whipping one tax collector and tarring and feathering another. Washington responded with a federalized militia force of nearly 13,000 men from four states, which required a draft that was also mightily resisted. Order was restored, and federal authority was firmly established.
I think of that bit of historical drama whenever I get discouraged that my lifelong exhortations against government overreach have been and likely will remain futile. At least it’s not a new battle. It’s been part of our fabric from the beginning.
The Founders feared more than anything a central government strong enough to be tyrannical, but they understood that the tendency of power is always to accumulate and concentrate. So they wrote a Constitution and designed a federal system designed to diffuse and disperse that authority as much as possible.
George Washington was there for the debates, so he knew this well and certainly appreciated it. Yet one of his first decisive acts was to flex federal muscle in support of a detested national tax complete with crony capitalism, and in a way that required involuntary servitude.
It was a gravid reminder of the seductive allure of power and the way it is wielded by those to whom we give a taste of it. It does not accumulate and concentrate just in Washington, D.C. It also prowls the corridors of state capitals and lurks in the corners of city halls. No matter how much we try to confine officials to the few things they should do, there is always a drift to the many things they want to do just because they can.
The mayor of my city has expended great amounts of time, energy and public money to remake downtown and herd us all together because it offends progressive sensibilities for people to exercise their freedom of movement to go to the suburbs. He’s just been elected to another term and promises to explore energy alternatives and concentrate on “the arts.” We can only hope that there will be a little attention paid to filling the potholes and hauling the garbage away.
The Indiana General Assembly has enacted a new law offering sales tax breaks for an unprecedented 50 years to any company committing at least $750 million to build a data center in the state, something only giants like Apple, Facebook and Google could manage (thanks for the precedent, Mr. Washington). Never mind that data centers provide relatively low employment and are ripe for automation — the legislation doesn’t require any job creation anyway. The tax break, unavailable to mom-and-pop stores struggling to break even, would be worth several hundred million dollars.
Alas, there has been no pothole rebellion. Citizens will apparently be happy to drive around them on the way to eat and play in the shiny new downtown. There will certainly be no sales-tax uprising. A data center, if it ever comes, will at least provide a few construction jobs, for a short while. All our attention will be focused on the presidential contest, in which a Big Government incumbent Republican will be taken on by a Democrat promising a Bigger Than Ever Government.
Power doesn’t just accumulate and concentrate. It drifts away, slipping through the fingers of those who should hold on to it. It is said that we get the government we deserve. We certainly get the government we are willing to tolerate.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.