24 September 2009

A tax by any other name still smells like skubalon

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said..., "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master -- that's all." -- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (Ch. 6)

I didn't know this (neither would I ever have guessed), but, apparently, use of a dictionary is evidence of impropriety. Well, that's what His Beatitude thinks, anyway – at least when one is using a dictionary in opposition to Him. During his Sunday morning talk show tour, Our Leader appeared with George Stephanopoulos, who asked,

STEPHANOPOULOS: Under this mandate, the government is forcing people to spend money [by requiring them to purchase health insurance] and fining you if you don't. How is that not a tax increase?

OBAMA: No, that's not true, George. The -- For us to say that you've gotta take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase. What it's saying is that we're not going to have other people carrying your burdens for you any more than the fact that right now everybody in America just about has to get auto insurance. Nobody considers that a tax increase. People say to themselves that is a fair way to make sure that if you hit my car, that I'm not covering all the costs.

Actually, that isn't how auto insurance works at all. But its very instructive, and not surprising, that he thinks it works that way, though -- very, very instructive. (In case you don't know: Auto insurance is not required so you can pay your bills if the other guy hits you. The requirement is that you be able to cover your liabilities if you hit the other guy. I don't know whether consulting a dictionary would have helped the president on this.)

But I digress.


[...]

OBAMA: ...George, you can't just make up that language and decide that that's called a tax increase.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't think I'm making it up. Merriam-Webster's dictionary, tax: a charge, usually of money imposed by authority on persons or property for public purposes.

OBAMA: George, the fact that you looked up Merriam's dictionary, the definition of tax increase, indicates to me that you're stretching a little bit right now, otherwise you wouldn't have gone to the dictionary to check on the definition.

There you have it. Using a dictionary to check on the definition of a key term (something most of us were taught to do in school) indicates that one is stretching. Trying to resolve a difficulty which relies upon the correct meaning of a term must, in His Beatitude's incredible opinion, be done without consulting a dictionary. That's incredible. What's even more incredible is that His Beatitude went to law school, which means he was required to know definitions of key terms, the definitions of these key terms being found in many cases in legal dictionaries.

Since His Humptiness specifically singled out Stephanopoulos's use of Webster's as improper, here is a discussion from a source other than Webster's:

John Bouvier defined a tax as:
A pecuniary burden imposed for the support of the government. The enforced proportional contribution of persons and property levied by the authority of the state for the support of the government and for all public needs.
In Lower Mainland, the Privy Council, Justice Thankerton for the Court, wrote that taxes:
... are compulsorily imposed by a statutory (authority)....They are enforceable by law...(and) compulsion is an essential feature of taxation.
In Australia, Justice Dwyer wrote, in Leake:
A compulsory contribution, or an impost, may be nonetheless a tax, though not so called.

The distinguishing feature of a tax ... is that it is a compulsory contribution imposed by a sovereign authority on, and required from, the general body of subjects or citizens, as distinguished from isolated levies on individuals.
In Canada, an oft-cited definition is that of Justice Duff of the Supreme Court in Lawson:
[Taxes]are enforceable by law .... Then they are imposed under the authority of the legislature. They are imposed by a public body.... The levy is also made for a public purpose.
In Ontario Private Campground, Justice Howden wrote:
A tax is defined as an impost or levy by the legislature or other public body for a public purpose, enforced by law.

At common law, the terms fee and charge do not exclude a tax and have been used interchangeably; therefore it was held in British Columbia that a fee imposed by provincial statute on operators of mobile home parks ... was considered to be a tax on land. Similar fees or taxes on mobile home parks have been upheld as land taxes.
But in Westbank, at ¶4, Justice Gonthier of the Canadian Supreme Court distinguished a tax from a user fee:
[User fees] bear all of the traditional hallmarks of a tax. They are enforceable by law, imposed pursuant to the authority of Parliament, levied by a public body, and are imposed for a public purpose. There is no nexus between the revenues raised and the cost of any services provided. As such, they do not resemble a user fee, nor any other form of a regulatory charge.
Granted, that discussion is in terms of Canadian law, but we belong to the same legal tradition. Here's how my Black's, 5th Abridged Edition, in relevant part, defines tax:
A pecuniary burden laid upon individuals, business entities, or property to support and carry on the legitimate functions of the government. Essential characteristics of a tax are that it is not a voluntary payment or donation, but an enforced contribution, exacted pursuant to legislative authority.
His opponents assert that this insurance requirement, including perhaps especially the fines, constitutes a tax because it accords with the definition -- even the legal definition -- of a tax. His Humptiness, a trained lawyer, rather than offering even an attempt at distinguishing meanings, summarily declares it improper to employ a dictionary in fixing the meaning of a key term. It's not a tax because when His Humptiness uses a word it means only what His Humptiness wants it to mean, and nothing else.

It's not a tax, you see, because His Humptiness says it is not a tax. So, if it's a question of which is master, then His Humptiness is master – that’s all.

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James Frank SolĂ­s
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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