A Reviewer's Notebook - 1964/1
JANUARY 01, 1964 by JOHN CHAMBERLAIN
Overlooked Taxes – and Principles
Edmund Wilson, a critic who can make the history of ideas as exciting as a novel, must spend practically all of his waking hours in his valiant attempt to read the whole of the world’s literature from Aeschylus to John Steinbeck. Consequently, one can believe him when he says that it was a combination of neglect and ignorance of changes in the law that led to his failure to file income tax returns from 1946 to 1955. When one is immersed in the third period of Henry James, or the Dead Sea scrolls, and not making much money anyway, it is very easy to forget the significance of April 15.
The federal government, however, is not disposed to make distinctions between creative writers and delinquent heavyweight pugilists when it comes to cracking down on people for failure to pay taxes. So, though Mr. Wilson was perfectly willing to file and pay when he discovered what the law required, the harassment of a bewildered literary man began. It took two lawyers negotiating with the tax authorities five years to get Mr. Wilson’s case settled—and throughout the five years the penalties and interest continued to pile up. There was, says Mr. Wilson, a bill for some $69,000, "a sum which had been arrived at by the slapping on of 6 per cent for interest and 90 per cent for penalties: that is 50 per cent for fraud, 25 per cent for delinquency, 5 per cent for failure to file and 10 per cent for allegedly underestimating my income."
Eventually, the lawyers and the income tax agents worked out a compromise settlement, and the government got a good chunk of money. But heaven alone knows how many books and articles Mr. Wilson failed to write during those five distracted years. The books and essays that Mr. Wilson didn’t write represented lost royalties, and a consequent loss in revenue to the government. Furthermore, Mr. Wilson has had his lesson: as a literary man who doesn’t need much money for his daily expenses, he promises the government that he will do no more remunerative work in the future than is absolutely necessary to keep him in food, clothing, and shelter. He thinks he can cut his earning power to a point where he will have no taxes to pay at all. Thus, our punitive tax policy negates itself.
A Narrative Delight
Mr. Wilson tells the story of his embroilment with the tax authorities in a little book called The Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest (Farrar, Straus, $2.95). Like everything else that has ever come from the pen of Mr. Wilson, the book is a literary pleasure to read. Mr. Wilson is A-One at narration, and his figures of speech are always compelling. He speaks of the "two terrors" under which Americans now live—fear of the Soviet Union and fear of the income tax. "These two terrors," he says, "have been adjusted to complement one another." We are "like the man in the old Western story, who, chased into a narrow ravine by a buffalo, is confronted with a grizzly bear. If we fail to accept the tax, the Russian buffalo will butt and trample us, and if we try to defy the tax, the federal bear will crush us."
Anyone who resents the legalized injustice that is part and parcel of the progressive income tax will sympathize with Mr. Wilson as his story unwinds. But one’s sympathy is one thing, and one’s respect for Mr. Wilson’s sense of logic is another. The minute that Mr. Wilson departs from his narrative it becomes apparent that this is not a book about taxation that is grounded in any particular principle. Mr. Wilson, as it turns out, is not against the progressive, or graduated, features of the income tax as such. Nor is he against the idea that it is all right for 51 per cent of the people to decide how the other 49 per cent shall be compelled to spend their incomes, or a large proportion thereof. Mr. Wilson is merely against majority rule in those instances in which he disapproves of what the majority decides to do. And he is only against a progressive tax when it is spent for things that he doesn’t like.
He doesn’t approve of collecting taxes to support our military program, for example. He doesn’t think our money should be used to conduct experiments in germ warfare, or to add to our atomic stockpiles. But he wouldn’t mind it a bit if the government were to use your tax money and mine to support literary men, or a national theater, or a government subsidized publishing house devoted to issuing the complete works of William Dean Howells, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allen Poe, and Harold Frederic. And he sees no injustice in taxing a Rockefeller at a high rate and himself at a much lower rate in order to pay for cultural things, or welfare projects of one type or another.
No Objection on Principle
So Mr. Wilson’s attack on the income tax is not grounded in a principled objection to the rules of the tax levying and collecting game. Mr. Wilson merely reserves the right to quit the game if and when the score happens to favor someone else.
Mr. Wilson is a first-rate scholar. He spent years on a study of the intellectual currents that produced the body of thought known as Marxism-Leninism. He can tell you the relationship of Vico or Michelet to Hegel, and of Hegel to Marx and Trotsky. He can trace lines of influence and development in modern literature from Rimbaud to Joyce. He can tell you all about the novelists of the Civil War period.
But in all his scholarly career he has never shown any particular interest in the intellectual forebears of the American form of government. John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton have never really enlisted his curiosity. If he had shown one-tenth of the interest in John Locke or James Madison that he has lavished on Frederick Engels or Lenin, Mr. Wilson might have realized that once you depart from the principles of limited government and a tax system that treats every income dollar in the nation equally, you have no defenses, whether ethical or political or philosophical, against a majority decision to do anything the majority wants with a minority’s upper bracket money.
In sum, what Mr. Wilson really wants is a government in Washington consisting of people of his own tastes who will use their unlimited power to levy special taxes on the rich to support things that Mr. Wilson likes. In other words, let the country be run by mandarins for the sake of mandarins.
But suppose you aren’t a mandarin? I like good literature, too, but why should Yogi Berra or Sonny Liston or Joe Doakes be taxed at progressive rates to help provide me with a cheap set of James Fenimore Cooper? If Mr. Wilson can supply one good reason, I’ll be willing to say that his The Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest is a logical humdinger in addition to being a narrative delight.
Mr. Wilson owes it to all of us to reflect upon his experience a bit longer. I’d like to see him lose himself for a few years in a study of the ideas that went into the making of the original American Constitution, which had to be changed by a monstrous type of amendment to permit the sort of taxation that did Mr. Wilson in.
GENERAL PHILOSOPHY by Elton Trueblood. (New York: Harper and Row, 1963. 370 pp. $6.00).
Reviewed by Edmund A. Opitz
The things we argue about, the matters which engage us in debate, get plenty of attention—but often at the expense of the things we take for granted. There are certain axioms, assumptions, or premises which most men in a given period merely accept without so much as a second thought. Not so the philosopher. Second thought is his business; he thinks, but he also reflects on the nature of the thinking process itself.
Nearly every man is a philosopher, of sorts. Man can hardly prevent a sense of wonder from breaking into his work-a-day world now and then, and occasionally he tries to figure out how things are related to each other and to the totality of things. A philosopher is one who does this kind of thinking systematically, and the philosophic enterprise has been going on since the days of the pre-Socratics, even earlier in places like India. It is not a closed shop enterprise, but to the uninitiated it looks like a charmed circle. First exposure in a college classroom does not "take," and to get it from an average textbook in philosophy is almost impossible. Philosophy is more caught than taught, and most teachers and most textbooks do not themselves have it. So, we are on our own. But we need guidance of some sort, for no individual can frame a philosophy from scratch—any more than he can make a pencil (as Leonard Read demonstrates).
For years I have recommended Guide to Philosophy, by the late C.E.M. Joad, as the only worthwhile introduction I knew. This is still recommended, and it is available in paper (Dover, T297, 597 pp. $2). But an even better introduction is now at hand, General Philosophy by Elton Trueblood. This is designed as a college text by a sound thinker who can really write. In good textbook fashion, each chapter is a progression on what precedes it, whereas Joad writes a series of essays on the various problems and schools of philosophy. Actually, the two books supplement each other beautifully. In fourteen chapters True blood introduces us to most of the major concerns of philosophy, and to a number of philosophers. His chapter 13, "Society," is inadequate, but this will not bother readers who know Mises and Hayek.
Elton Trueblood, a professor of philosophy at Earlham College, has written a number of thoughtful little books for the general public, as well as one previous textbook, Philosophy of Religion (New York: Harper, 1957, 324 pp. $5). This is a most helpful book to put into the hands of a college student, and it is good reading for any thoughtful adult.
These three books introduce the reader to the whole field of philosophy, after which he might liketo venture more deeply into two specific branches of the subject, logic and ethics. L. Susan Stebbing’s A Modern Introduction to Logic appeared in 1931 and has since become one of the standard texts in the field. It is now available in paper (Harper Torchbooks, TB538, 525 pp. $2.75). The Moral Life and the Ethical Life by Eliseo Vivas is not a textbook; it is a brilliant defense of values. A paperback edition has just appeared (Regnery Gateway Edition 6082, 320 pp. $1.95). And finally, for the commuter, an easy-to-read survey which can be picked up at your drugstore or newsstand for half a dollar: Joad’s Philosophy (Fawcett Premier, D154, 192 pp. 50¢).