Tax lessons from Bono

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Opinion Zone,Christopher Taylor

Bono, the lead singer of the rock group U2, is famous for his political declarations from stage during live performances and his efforts for various causes around the world.  He's tried to get the G20 summit to focus on helping Africa's various ailments.  He's big on "fair trade" and was part of nearly every charity concert in the 80s and 90s, including Live Aid and Artists Against Apartheid.

His charitable work has gotten Bono nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize and gained him a knighthood in England.  He's regularly invited by pundits and world leaders to discuss various matters.   And now, he's in trouble in Ireland for not helping the poor.

U2 has built a multi-billion dollar industry worth of records and merchandising, and they've gotten tired of the taxes in Ireland which are going up as the country tries to dig its self out of the same sort of financial mess most of the rest of the world is facing.  According to George Arbuthnott at the Daily Mail, Bono is in trouble with protestors:

...when Bono's band U2 perform at Glastonbury later this month, protesters are planning to accuse them of avoiding taxes which could have helped exactly the sort of people the singer cares about so dearly.

The protest has been provoked by U2's decision to move their multi-million-pound music and publishing business away from Ireland – thus allegedly avoiding taxes on record sales.

As a conservative I can hardly condemn Bono for not wanting to submit to heavy taxation.  Indeed, that's partly why a lot of big time rock stars and actors move to America; to avoid the European tax burden.

Yet in this protest, there's a tacit assumption by the people involved about what they think the purpose of taxation, and indeed government, is.  The protest is presuming that, by not paying Irish taxes, Bono is skipping out on helping those in need.

This means they believe that at least part of the purpose of government, and the taxes that are raised by government, is to help people.  When the American Revolution took place, the Founding Fathers of the U.S., based on thinkers before them such as Rousseau, Locke and Montesquieu, thought differently.

The U.S. Declaration of Independence from England puts their idea of the reason government exists this way (emphasis mine):

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...

The purpose of government, in this line of thinking, is to secure the rights of the governed.  This view of government is the reverse of most modern ideas of the purpose and use of political power.  Most people today have the idea these protesters do: that government's purpose is to help those in need, to take money from some and give to others in the name of justice and equality.

James Madison, the "father" of the Constitution, disagrees.  He considers good government to be that which governs least:

A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.

And James Wilson, one of the first Supreme Court justices appointed by George Washington said

“Government … should be formed to secure and enlarge the exercise of the natural rights of its members; and every government which has not this in view as its principal object is not a government of the legitimate kind.

Yet it is not merely an American concept that a powerful government intruding on everyday life is a violation of its proper authority and is corrosive to liberty.  England long has held these principles as well:

"Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is argument of tyrants. It is the creed of slaves."  William Pitt in the House of Commons November 18, 1783

In truth, government's purpose is to protect its people from evil and tyranny.  To do anything else is to itself become tyrannical and violate its very purpose.  In the name of doing good, all manner of damage has been done to liberty, and as a recent study by the World Bank notes, economic liberty is far better for the people of the world than dependency upon generosity of the government.

Bono spends his own money by the millions on helping people in need.  By paying less in taxes, he is able to spend more in these causes.  He's not always the wisest guy in how he spends his money, but its his money to spend.

Assuming that the only way to help those in need is through taxation taken at the point of a gun and distributed inefficiently through bureaucrats in government is not just wrong, it is foolish.

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