Do We Want Enough?

The title question might seem like a strange one to ask about modern Americans. We tend to think of ourselves as wanting and expecting too much, or at least as having too little discipline or commitment when it comes to wanting things. We talk about the "sense of entitlement" Americans have: a selfish sense that good things should come to us without discomfort or any unpleasant effort.

I actually think that that characterization of Americans is a bit overblown. But for my purposes, we can frame the title question usefully by asking other ones. Is it wanting too much when Americans who own businesses or work for pay want to keep more of their earnings—or at least want to keep what they keep now, and not have to forfeit more to government-mandated schemes? Is it wanting too much, when Americans want to earn an ample living and make their own choices, rather than being satisfied with the idea of a prescribed lifestyle or a government-delineated amount of "consumption"?

It's worth noting that Americans' taxes are already more than enough to pay for the basic public infrastructure that virtually all citizens think we need, such as roads, support for the indigent, police, and a military. In 2011, federal, state, and local governments took in $4.3 trillion in tax revenues from the American people and their businesses—which is 28 percent of the $15 trillion gross domestic product, and ought to pay for a whole lot of infrastructure. With all his tax liabilities added up, meanwhile, the average American taxpayer this year worked for federal, state, and local governments until April 17. His cumulative tax burden in 2012 is 29.2 percent of his income; he provides for himself and his family out of the other 70 percent. This 70 percent is also the base from which he manages to give to others.

It's a real question whether this taxpayer is wrong to resist being billed for more, or to oppose being ordered to spend his remaining income on items mandated by the government. And in considering this question, it is useful to contemplate a couple of facts about the American colonies before our War of Independence.

Every American knows that we rebelled against King George III of England largely because of the tax burdens imposed by a distant parliament. But fewer of us may be aware that the American colonists, in 1776, held a particular distinction in the developed West. Historian Thomas Fleming pointed it out in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal on July 3:

[W]hat else about revolutionary America might help us feel closer to those founders in their tricornered hats, fancy waistcoats and tight knee-breeches?

Those Americans, it turns out, had the highest per capita income in the civilized world of their time. They also paid the lowest taxes—and they were determined to keep it that way.

The Americans who revolted because of taxes paid lower taxes than anyone else in the Western world, including their middle-class counterparts in Great Britain. The colonists resented the incursions of the king's tax collectors, but in comparison to other nations' citizens, they were hardly being crushed under a heavy, despotic burden. Even with the restrictions imposed by the Crown on manufacturing and trade, the colonists were unusually prosperous. But they wanted more freedom and more control of their destiny.

It is instructive to remember that the Americans who fought for independence and the establishment of a new nation were not struggling up from penury or forced servitude. They were middle-class people, who had a great deal but wanted more—not necessarily more material goods, but more liberty to pursue their interests and work for themselves, and a different relationship with their government.

Rebellions of the poorest and most downtrodden have never produced an outcome like America's. It is interesting for today's American citizen—often reared on ideological caricatures of rich, poor, and the nature of revolution—to ponder the incredible power that was unleashed when a vigorous, prosperous people became dissatisfied with the targeting of their earnings by an unaccountable government.

How do we feel about the fact that the American story is not one of desperate rebellion against brutality, but rather one of well-to-do colonists fighting a monarchy of lower-than-average cruelty and avarice to obtain something better? Can we even "process" this idea today? And where does God stand on it?