The Taxation of Time
By Bruce Walker
February 9, 2009
The surrealistic level of over-taxation and government over-spending simply does not strike a clear chord with most people. The hidden taxes, the income tax withholding structure, the taxes of unfunded mandates for citizens, the distortion of the value of money-all these seem too abstract in times of real financial worry. Those of us who dabble in math can whip up scary numbers like the per capita national debt or the rise of inflation over the last fifty years.
Other demonstrations of how high the burden has become come closer to home. The percentage of national income gobbled by government is at the highest level since the Second World War; soon it will surpass that feverish level of guns before butter expenditures and become the highest percentage in our history. The worker bees will come to comprehend that statistic better, but if our lives are still comfortable, so what? Other monetary expressions of the problem will be equally faint.
There is, however, a better way of telling the tale. The National Taxpayers Union and other groups have tinkered with this approach a bit by counting down the days the average Joe and Jane must work each year to pay the government's bills (and actually pay them, of course, only in those fleeting periods of nominal surpluses). Right idea, but not the best formulation of the idea.
What do most adults today crave? Free time, holidays, flextime at the office, home schooling instead of state schooling for their children, home care instead of stranger care for their children, moments to stop and smell the roses: Time.
Freedom and its inevitable explosion of technology and efficiency have given us wealth. That is the precise reason why appeals to greater wealth often fall on deaf ears. Tiny numbers of farmers can produce all the food we need and more. Robots can forge steel, weld cars together, and weave clothes. The Information Superhighway is opening vast vistas of knowledge in general and in specialized fields for the ordinary interested person. We are, in many ways, making enough stuff.
But we just can't enjoy it much, because so much of our potential and actual productive capacity is sacrificed to the lazy, selfish priests of government and its lesser gods of brainless ideology and political correctness. What we have lost is not bread from our mouths - most of us, including those on some variation of the dole - are a bit overweight. What we have lost are the most precious jewels of a mortal life that ages before it ends: Time.
To see the blow this strikes to our dreams and our hopes, consider how we punish criminals - we lock them up and deny them part of their lives. How do we punish children? We put them in "time out." We couples spat, what is the most common manifestation of unhappiness? We spend some hours or some days ignoring our other, denying that person our time.
To see the preciousness of time to the average working person, consider what labor unions in Europe often seek first - more holidays and shorter workweeks. What were the earliest demands of social reformers? Statutes that prevented children from spending their childhood at looms, women who were cooks, cleaners, and mothers at home from growing gray at thirty, and men who spent their working hours in black, stale mines from spending half their lives there.
If the average person only needs to work four hours a day to maintain our current standard of living in an economy of real, rather than virtual, activity, then what that person loses each day from Monday to Friday is twenty hours of free time.
Tell working mothers that if the druids of Washington are made to go, these women can work from eight to noon, instead of eight to five, and they will grasp the loss. Tell men stuck in joyless jobs that without the black hole of limitless taxation they could spend ten hours a week learning and seeking happy jobs, and give them another ten hours a week to nap in a hammock, and they will get it. Speak to the hidden artist, poet, and bird watcher in each of us (and there is some variation of that alive in everyone) and that frustrated soul will begin to clang its tin cup against the iron bars of the prison cell.
We are not losing money so much as we are losing years of time with our families. We are not losing new, neat gadgets so much as we are losing time to play with those gadgets. We are not losing good medical care as we are losing the natural health of slower, gentler paces and a good night's sleep. We are not losing physical nourishment so much as we are losing spiritual and emotional food.
Serfs did not calculate their tax burden in coin - money was rare in the Dark Ages. They saw instead days each week of forced labor in the Baron's fields. From Nazi Germany to Soviet Russia the Orwellian signs over the concentration camps and slave labor camps were basically the same: Freedom through Work.
But toiling to serve an unpleasant and ugly master is no freedom. It is drudgery compounded with bitterness. How can we make our indentured servants perceive their actual status? By reminding them of exactly what indentured servants gave away: Years of their lives. Sing that song, and the people will hear.
Bruce Walker is a long-time conservative writer whose work is published regularly at popular conservative sites such as American Thinker.