Wednesday, April 16, 2014

For Tax Return Deadline Day

[The following first appeared ten years ago today, at the old Palace Of Reason, -- FWP]

To love a thing is to know and love its nature -- Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

This rant will be rather ranty, so the Curmudgeon has stepped aside to let Fran write it. Stop drumming your fingers, Mr. C; this won't take long.

I've become known as an America-booster, a flag-waver who doesn't want to hear anything said against his country or anything associated with it. The charge has some substance. Among nations, America stands alone. It's the only nation that routinely exhibits decency and generosity toward other nations. It's the only nation whose denizens possess any freedom worth mentioning, whether de jure or de facto. Its people are the best people in the world: the most passionate about justice, yet also the most charitable and most willing to forgive.

So I trust Palace readers will pardon me for saying that America-bashers of all stripes, young or old, left or right, foreign or domestic, can kiss my bleeding Irish ass.

America is not perfect; even its most ardent defenders will admit that. We'll listen to anyone who has a constructive criticism or a well-meaning suggestion for us. If it strikes us right, we'll act on it.

But, if you can't present your case without running my country down, condemning it for all manner of things it did not do, comparing it to Nazi Germany and its president to Hitler, I'm not going to listen. I won't care what your claims are, and I won't care what injustices you've suffered. All I'll want is to see the back of your neck receding at red-shift speed, and if you're not inclined to oblige me, I might just wring your neck for you, because I have had enough of you and I no longer care what the consequences of shutting you up forcibly will be. DO YOU HEAR ME?

Ah. There. That feels better. Now, where was I? Oh, yes.

In David Brin's post-Apocalypse novel The Postman, he has an exchange between his protagonist, Gordon Krantz, and a secondary figure, George Powhatan, that rings a striking note for those who love this country as I do. Krantz, who's been trying to organize a defensive force for what he calls the Restored United States, has pinned a great deal of his hopes onto Powhatan, whose military prowess has become regionally known. However, Powhatan is unwilling to have anything to do with Krantz's project. When Krantz asks Powhatan if he'd ever loved anything beyond the little community his skills had secured, Powhatan's response is that he tried, once, but he'd learned that the big things don't love you back.

Indeed, it can be hard to avoid that conviction, especially on April 15.

Today is an appropriate day for meditating on the asymmetry between the individual American citizen and the 88,000 governments that claim some jurisdiction over his actions and his property. Let's follow our old friend Smith...well, okay, strictly speaking he's the Curmudgeon's friend, but allow me a little latitude here...through his day and see just how much his country loves him.

Smith rises at six AM, careful not to wake his wife. He immediately turns up the thermostat and hurries to the bathroom, where he showers in government-provided water. Once his house had a well, but the county made him shut it down. There might be pesticides in the water, they said. Far better to buy certifiably clean water from the government's water monopoly.

Smith's house isn't properly warm until seven, when he gets into his car. Smith has to turn the thermostat down at night to save oil. The government has put so many obstacles in the way of petroleum and natural gas exploration that the country is at the mercy of OPEC, and OPEC is widely known to be merciless. Once, when the local electric utility proposed to build a nuclear generating plant nearby, Smith thought he might convert to electric heat, but nothing ever came of it. Permission to build a fission generator is even harder to get than permission to drill an oil well.

Around eight AM, Smith reports to work at an employer where a string of innocent words, if said to the wrong person or at the wrong time, could get him disciplined or fired, because federal law has made assuaging the sensitivities of various aggressive grievance-mongering groups a higher priority than freedom of speech. Smith's employer also collaborates with various governments in reporting and dividing Smith's income, whether Smith has agreed to the role or not.

Smith's children attend government-run schools where highly paid civil servants, who work less than seven hours per day and only 180 days per year and are immune from discipline for anything short of a major felony, harangue them about how America is a genocidal nation that's raping the Earth, and her military is forcing its "consumer culture" on all the other peoples of the world.

At dinnertime, Smith contemplates the rising tide of lawsuits that seek to make just about anything that tastes good a crime to put in his mouth. It's for his own good, of course, just as it was with drugs, and alcohol, and tobacco.

Smith's wife is a little worried. She's been run down lately. Her doctor said it's probably nothing, but he's ordered a set of tests. When she asked what she was being tested for, he wouldn't say. What with the skyrocketing taxes and costs of living, the family couldn't get by without her income.

Smith's son has worries, too. He's about to turn eighteen, and there are some prominent legislators talking about reinstating the draft.

Smith's elder daughter is sixteen. She's a pretty girl, has her share of friends and a boyfriend that Smith's just a little unsure about. Oh, the kid is probably decent enough; that ring in his nose is just a youth-culture fad. Still, Smith's daughter has brought home some unsettling stuff from her mandatory Sex Education class. He wonders just how much no-holds-barred experimentation is going on under the radar of these nonjudgmental educators...or with their explicit approval. There don't seem to be any limits these days, even with all the diseases.

Smith leaves the dinner table and heads for his tiny home office to pay his bills. His mortgage payment includes taxes for all sorts of "services" he'd never asked for and wished were not offered, including some that couldn't have been designed better to ruin the quality of life in his neighborhood, by attracting loafers and parasites onto the public teat and criminals into the area.

Smith's wife busies herself with cleaning. Fatigue or no fatigue, there's work to be done. Hire a cleaning woman to help with the house? Are you kidding? That would make Smith an employer, subject to an array of federal reporting and taxing rules that could choke an elephant. Careers have been ruined for ignoring those rules. Ask Zoe Baird or Kimba Wood.

There some money left after the bills have been met. Smith contemplates extending the house or landscaping the grounds. But he'll need a permit granted by some unelected board of officials that answers to no one, and that can approve or deny any application for any reason, or none. They'll want to do a site inspection. God help Smith if they notice that his yard is damp a few days out of the year; he might be forbidden even to mow it, as a federally protected "wetland." Anyway, he hasn't yet filled out his tax returns, and there's no telling what surprises might lurk in them.

Around eleven PM, after much fevered work with calculator and pencil, Smith heads for the post office with his tax returns. There's a line wrapped around it, as there is around every post office in the country tonight. Smith has no choice; he has to get his tax return postmarked so he won't be penalized for not waiving his Fourth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.

Smith gets to bed at about half past midnight, dead tired. But before he retires, he has to set the alarm clock for four AM. He has a shuttle flight to catch tomorrow, to an important business meeting. It takes off at eight AM, but because of the new security rules, Smith has to be there no later than six, and it will take him at least an hour to get to the airport in the morning traffic. He makes a mental note to leave the silver money clip his wife gave him for his last birthday at home. Airport security workers, now federal employees, have been known to confiscate such things on any pretext. The chance of getting them back is slight.

That's an awful lot of love, isn't it? That is, if love is a cactus shoved up your ass by a professional sadist.

It can be hard to see Smith as some sort of victim. If he's typical, he owns his own home and two cars. He might own a boat. There are bank liens on all these things, of course, but that's the price of hastened, not to say instant, gratification. If his kids are at all bright, they'll surely go to college, though the benefits of that particular rite of passage are falling off rapidly and have always been less than claimed.

Still, Smith is being hemmed in on all sides by governmental prescriptions, proscriptions, and exactions. He's not as free as his father or grandfather were, even though he's more prosperous. He's also not as safe, nor is he as capable of defending himself against predation. There are more predators prowling the neighborhood than ever, and much of the time the law is on their side.

Smith's retirement is an uncertain thing, too. He's been mulcted throughout his working life to pay into the Social Security system, but whether the system will pay him the benefits promised so long ago is becoming ever more doubtful. He's likely to have to work well into his sixties.

I'm not saying things are worse here than in some other unnamed country; quite the reverse. And we can afford the monetary part of the tab...for now. But the sense that the order of things has gone badly wrong has never been stronger.

This used to be the Land of the Free. In many ways, it still is. More de facto personal freedom is not to be found anywhere in the world. But it's far less free than it once was. It's disavowed its presumptions of freedom and shed its original libertarian nature.

The trend away from freedom and toward bondage continues to accelerate. Governments and their hangers-on continue to chip away at individual autonomy and personal sovereignty, usually under the justification of either security or what's "good" for us.

A lot of thought has gone into how to halt and eventually reverse that trend. I should know; I've written quite a lot about it. But breakthrough-quality tactics that don't come with unacceptable costs have yet to surface.

There's little point in dwelling on all of this. It's everywhere. If you've never felt afflicted as Smith has, you're a very atypical American. It you don't know anyone who shares some or all of Smith's complaints and fears, you died before 1914.

But you might be one of the multitudes standing on line at the post office tonight with a nine-by-twelve manila envelope clutched in your hand, possibly containing a check it greatly pained you to write. You might be asking yourself whether that check is an installment payment on your fetters. I wanted you to know that you're not alone, in a deeper sense than is covered by the folks on line with you.

The worst part about being jilted by this country is the impossibility of a new and better love. There simply aren't any. We have to save this one.

The raw materials for the rebirth of freedom are all around us. But they require a foundation of hope sufficient to build on. And whether it's justified or not, hope is the thing most lacking from the freedom-minded in our time.

It is a terrible but cherished thing to love without hope. -- Frederik Pohl, "We Purchased People"

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