All Commentary
Thursday, March 1, 2001

Oh, What a Piece of Work Is a Man

We Dodge the Tax Collector and Rule-Makers as Lambs Flee the Shearsman

Ted Roberts is a freelance writer in Huntsville, Alabama, who often writes on public-policy issues.

Will, the manager of the new Globe Theater in London, was frustrated. Tickets were priced alluringly cheap, but he made a nice profit on ale at 2 shillings a mug. However, the customers insisted on smuggling in their own ale, a violation of the rules posted plainly on the big front door. and if he patted them down, the wily first nighters hid it in the bunting around their kids. And if he searched the kids, the playgoers were quick to pour a couple quarts down their own gullets, where it escaped both detection and confiscation. That’s when Will, a man for all seasons who also dabbled in scriptwriting, came up with one of his signature lines: “What a piece of work is a man! . . . how infinite in faculty!” Hmmm—not bad, he thought. I’ll use it in my new play, Hamlet.

The Bard got it right, as usual. The ingenuity of the human spirit to finesse any form of economic or political restriction is awe-inspiring. Lawyers and legislators chew their pencils in frustration. We dodge the tax collector and rule-makers as lambs flee the shearsman. William Shakespeare, no slouch at reading the human heart, recognized this talent half a millennium ago.

Prohibition is the classic example. Guys chewing on fat cigars and lugging Thompson submachine guns also read the human heart. And even though they thought the Avon was a cosmetic line and their idea of a midsummer night’s dream was a full speakeasy on a July weekend, they were not dumb. They got rich on slippery evasions of the Volstead Act.

“Warning: do not mix this canister with four quarts of water and the spices in the attached envelope labeled A or it will turn into a 90-proof alcoholic beverage with a remarkable resemblance to gin. If you prefer a remarkable resemblance to bourbon, use the envelope labeled B.” Warning labels five decades before the government got in the business! Another triumph for human ingenuity.

Then there’s the drug war—one Waterloo after another. Billions wasted. And somehow, illegal substances are as ubiquitous as dirt. Craving consumers will buy ‘em, grow ‘em, steal ‘em, or manufacture ‘em.

Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets. Legislation be damned.

And nobody doubts we humans clutch our capital to our bosom like a bear holding a honeycomb.

City income tax? Well, we’ll just live in the ‘burbs.

Massachusetts turns into Taxachusetts? Move to New Hampshire.

Federal income-tax penalties on marrieds? OK, pair up, but skip the preacher and the courthouse paperwork.

Forty percent surcharge on out-of-state tuitions? “Oh, Bobby lives with his grandparents, in state.”

Only one video poker machine to a room? Call a cubicle a room.

It is infinite—the ability of the human mind to churn out evasions to state confiscation of our capital or choices.

Since the Days of Eden

Homo nontaxibus has been at it since Eden. It began in the Garden when the Master Landscaper banned that apple. The first attempt at legislation. One rule! And it was too much for our forebears.

Now consider that our Creator levied a heavy tax on sexual pleasure in the form of a helpless miniature of the species, totally dependent on the pleasure seekers. Result: an irksome restriction on movement, a drain on family resources. He experimented with various reproductive concepts on wolves, spiders, snakes, fruit flies, and amoebas. They flopped. After the first couple of months they all were dwindling species. And He knew why. No incentive for the bored creatures! (Especially the amoebas. They divided sparingly, joylessly, infrequently.)

Why not, thought the Grand Designer, combine the pursuit of pleasure (he’d placed that glowing ember in the heart of every living creature) with the procreation requirement? And so he did. Thereupon, the act of manufacturing a new goat became as enjoyable to the astonished and goatish partners as munching the sweet green grass on the hillside.

It could have been otherwise. He who hung the sun in the sky and set the planets spinning could have simply preprogrammed the replenishment of the species; no problem, considering his authority and considering the arsenal of infinite physiological mechanisms at his disposal. He could have decreed that kids drop out of goats—male or female—as automatically as acorns pop up on oak trees.

But the new pleasure/procreation concept worked great. Wolves went around grinning with joy, and plenty of baby wolves cuddled up to their furry mother in the caves of the new creation. And of course, the cubs sucked lustily at the milky faucets of mother wolf—energized to fuel up by the same pleasure principle that had engendered them.

In that idyllic garden where every breath brought ecstasy, the reproductive scheme worked well. The world’s first newlyweds duly replenished themselves with notorious Cain, gentle Abel, and obscure Seth.

But after their exile to the thorny outback, life was cruel, and our exiled ancestors needed all the rapture they could get. So they deftly learned how to slip-slide this onerous tax on love. Man is the only animal who can make love and not incur the debt of parenthood! A trick the beasts never mastered. The whoopee-but-no-goat concept evades them until this very day.

But we nimble hedonists know how to grab the golden ring-a-ding-ding and not add another bawling, helpless passenger to the merry-go-round. With only mild exercise of their imagination our ancestors found many, many paths to sexual satisfaction with no price in the form of a dependent. An epic evasion of cost! So Regulators, Central Planners, Tax Collectors, Social Engineers, don’t waste your time carving new commandments. The human branch of the animal kingdom outwitted, you might say, the Creator of its own wit. Bureaucrats beware.