My father’s father loved wit and wisdom in all its forms; he would laboriously copy long passages of beloved poems into a special notebook. Although I was only eleven when he passed on, many of his jokes remain fresh in my memory. One involved a poor Jewish man who writes a letter to God asking for a hundred dollars. The postman, seeing the Jewish surname of the sender, decides to forward the letter to the Israeli Knesset. They get a kick out of the request and vote to send the man fifty. A year later the man, down on his luck again, sends God a new appeal for a C-note, but this time with a postscript.
“Please don’t send it through the Knesset again. They keep half.”
Then this other classic that I heard as a kid. A Jew is traveling with a hundred dollars in his pocket and the sun is setting on Friday night. Once the Sabbath begins he can’t carry money, so he’ll have to walk the rest of the way home with empty pockets. Where to store the hundred? He dives quickly into a synagogue, opens a Bible to the passage reading “You should not steal” and leaves the money inside the book. When he returns on Sunday, he finds no money on that page. He does find a fifty; it’s on the page which reads, “And your brother shall live together with you…”
These gags came back to me yesterday when, traveling through Tennessee, I happened upon a startling story that has not garnered much national attention. The State of Tennessee happily announced that its new tax on illegal drugs has successfully collected $1.7 million in its first year of existence. This tax does not cover any other activity; it directly targets the sale of illegal narcotics. Once a dealer has paid, he receives a little sticker to place on his merchandise. The tax department is enjoined from passing along the information to law enforcement. The revenue, however, is said to be earmarked for fighting “drug crime.”
No one likes a stickler except, usually, the tax collector. For me to cavil would seem uncivil; after all, this reads like such an inspired bit of poetic justice. Yet I can’t help thinking of the point made by those old jokes. The state cannot engage in random taxation, nor do thievery and taxation mix. The bottom line is that the state really has no power to levy such a tax. It has just stepped outside the ethical boundaries of the mulcting power, ostensibly to serve some nobler cause. Sorry, fellas: bad government is not the answer to bad citizenship.
In brief, the brief for all taxation is the notion that the state provides something that facilitates the transaction. If a person earns income in a certain place, he does so by relying on the protection of his person and his property — and often the enforcement of the contracts — afforded by the local governing authority. If he buys a product or a piece of real estate, he can be taxed on the same basis. The state in effect takes a commission. In fact, once such taxes are in place, there is a long-standing practice of not excluding illegal income or purchases. Thus, in theory prostitutes are expected to pay their taxes, and gangsters like Al Capone were prosecuted for tax evasion even on the basis of illegal profits.
However, to institute a tax on illegal drugs per se is a moral and legal absurdity. The state, pursuant to its duly constituted laws, is trying to arrest the seller, to stop the sale, to confiscate the item, to arrest the buyer, to stop the use, to arrest the user, even to identify and arrest the supplier. On what basis can it ask for a fee as an enabler? It is simply indefensible.
The other moral question involves the right to take the money and provide a stamp without arresting the remitter. Particularly since the money is going to law enforcement. Doesn’t it add up to law enforcement taking money to look away from the commission of a crime?
There is a further complicating technicality, the fact that federal law allows federal agents to confiscate all drug moneys. This means that the state is collecting money that belongs to the federal government, a conflict of jurisdictions. All in all, this is government as sport, as theater, as business but not as guidance or leadership.
Only one approach is legitimate. If any branch of government learns of a sale of drugs that will take place, it must alert law enforcement, just as it expects every private citizen to do, even an attorney or a psychologist. The perpetrator should be thrown into jail, where the chaplain can hand him a Bible that is opened to this verse: “Before a blind man you should not place a stumbling-block.”
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