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Friday, December 8, 2017 Leer en Español

Limits on Power Are Limits on Oppression

No government can patronize one class but at the expense of others.

December 19 marks the birth of John Taylor of Caroline, who remains virtually unknown, despite being called “the most impressive political theorist that America has produced.”

Taylor, who served in the Continental Army, Virginia Legislature and U.S. Senate, was an Antifederalist, opposed to the overpowering central government he believed the Constitution would create. As F. Thornton Miller put it, “For Taylor, the Constitution was of worth only if it could serve the more fundamental cause of liberty.”

Taylor defended liberty and states’ rights, advocated a strict interpretation of the Constitution’s terms against federal overreaching, and vigorously opposed government favors and protectionism, which he called “the most efficacious system of tyranny practicable over civilized nations.”  

Taylor’s positions stand abandoned today. Government has become ever more the dispenser of special treatment at others’ expense. That is why Taylor’s 1822 Tyranny Unmasked merits revisiting.

Political liberty consists only in a government constituted to preserve and not to defeat the natural capacity of providing for our own good.

Governments able to do so uniformly sacrifice the national interest to their own.

As no government can patronize one class but at the expense of others…Is not their discord the universal consequence of the fraudulent power assumed by governments of allotting to classes and individuals indigence or wealth.

Payments…extorted to feed either an oppressive government or exclusive privileges… degenerate into actual tyranny.

The only reciprocity produced by [legislative favors] is between the corrupters and corrupted.

If a man should combine with a government to take away another’s property, the tyranny of the act would not be obliterated by the power of an accomplice.

The nation which imagines that… government can by provisions convert fraud into honesty relies upon a moral impossibility for the preservation of its liberty.

Governments, under pretense of supervising the affairs of individuals… enrich themselves and their instruments of oppression.

The treasure extorted beyond the line of honest frugality is uniformly diverted from the end of defending to that of transferring property.

The wealth of nations is best secured by allowing every person, as long as he adheres to the rules of justice, to pursue his own interest in his own way.

Liberty can only be preserved by a frugal government and by excluding frauds for transferring property from one man to another.

How then is tyranny to be ascertained… except as something which takes away our money, transfers our property and comforts to those who did not earn them, and eats the food belonging to others.

The transferring policy seems to suppose that the public has no property; and though legislatures have no moral or constitutional right to give one man’s property to another; yet that by combining the property of all men under the appellation “public,” they acquire both a moral and constitutional right to give the property of all men to one man.

There are two kinds of political economy. One consists of a frugal government, and an encouragement of individuals to earn, by suffering them to use; the other of contrivances for feeding an extravagant government, its parasites and partisans, its sinecures and exclusive privileges… [one] is liberty; the other is tyranny

Government… founded upon a supposed necessity that men must be robbed of their property to preserve social order… invariably terminates in despotism.

A government… able to oppress, must… be weak for the object of preserving liberty…Every innovation which weakens the limitations and divisions of power, alone able to make a government strong for the object of preserving liberty, makes it strong for the object of oppression.

John Taylor of Caroline deserves renewed attention, particularly for his overwhelming arguments derived from what Joseph Stromberg termed “the contrast between those whose property was the creature of political force and fraud and those who earned their property through productive work on the free market.”

As F. Thornton Miller wrote, “Most of Taylor’s world is gone. But, with the continued increase in the power of the federal government and the pursuit of policies that benefit specific constituencies, the principles set out in Tyranny Unmasked are as relevant today as they were in 1822.”

  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).