I’m not a fan of the state. It’s arbitrary and highly inefficient. Still, it’s here for the time being and I try to make my peace with it even while I try to change it. For the most part I succeed in being happy despite the state harassment we all encounter. Trips to the DMV, pat-downs by TSA agents and interactions with traffic cops can get me irritated, but I’m generally optimistic and calm. So why did the relatively small increase in payroll tax get me so steamed?
To be honest I’m not entirely sure. For some reason I was really struggling to not feel anger and helplessness after recalculating our family budget post tax hike. It was not the additional amount of money being taken that evoked such deep frustration, but the total inescapability of it. It reminded me of the feeling I had when I had my bike stolen as a kid. I came out of the store and it was just gone. I felt violated and insecure. But now it wasn’t a random thief who strikes once and leaves you alone; it was the state, always there and ready to demand more when the mood strikes.
If your cable bill goes up, you have options. You can call and vent your frustration. You can tell them the increase was not in your contract, or in the very least not clear to you. This often results in a renegotiation. My wife has a knack for getting utility providers to reduce their rates or offer temporary discounts if ever they make an error. As a last resort you can always cancel the service entirely and go with a competitor or simply go without. The state leaves no such option.
Being completely captive to this supposed service provider is disempowering. I was recently reading a book about depression and optimism in children and one of the things that stuck out to me was how powerful early experiences of helplessness can be. When kids are not able to experience cause and effect; when they can’t take action to alter the outcome of their world, they begin to despair. The despair often manifests as depression, bullying and withdraw. Punishment and reward with no connection to the child’s actions plant seeds that can take a lifetime to uproot.
The realization of just how vast and impersonal the state is can have a similar effect. One day you must pay the state X, the next day the rate is Y. There is nothing you’ve done or chosen to make this happen. There is nothing you can do.
My wife asked me what the least oppressive tax environment in the world was. At first I tried to recall some of the lists and charts I’ve seen, but then I remembered that it wouldn’t matter. We were both born in this country. That means even if we moved to another country, the IRS would demand income taxes from us for the rest of our lives. The only option is to officially expatriate, in which case the state calculates your lifetime tax liability and asks you to pay it in one lump sum. Some “social contract” this turns out to be!
I’ve been to countries with a high level of government “corruption” – an abbreviated way of saying a state that does what all states do, but without the factory-like repetition and paperwork. It’s not uncommon in such places to have a state agent approach you and claim you are in violation of some or another rule. You pay them $20 or so and they’re on their way. The rules are used as a threat to get your money. You pay, you can ignore the rules. Here in America it works a little differently. Instead of one agent showing up at your door, there are fifteen hundred bagillion nestled in cubicles wrapped in drab Soviet prison style architecture. They send you a lot of papers demanding that you get in your car and drive to them. You fill out six forms and wait in line for three hours. Then they tell you one of the forms is out of date and send you away because the new form is only available tomorrow. On your third visit you complete the forms properly so you can move on to the next step, paying whatever amount they determine you must pay. You pay them. But unlike countries with corrupt governments, your payment here does not buy you freedom from the silly rules. You pay in order that you may obey them.
Of course there is no doubt this kind of system is more predictable than the corrupt states. Then again, prison is predictable too. Predictability is something, but it’s not everything.
Back to my tax bill. I was angry. I knew it was unhealthy and counter-productive. I indulged in it for a little while and then decided it was time to be free, state or no state. I went and re-read this inspiring interview with my good friend T.K. Coleman. It got me back on track. T.K., The Shawshank Redemption and the late Harry Browne’s book How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World are excellent go-to’s when I start to let the oppressors win. If I’m free, “what can man do to me”?