They say there’s but five upon this isle: we are three of them; if the other two are brain’d like us, the state totters. The Tempest III:2
Nothing frightens the philosopher. He contradicts Newton before breakfast and at bedtime he straightened out Einstein. Over his soup, our thinker shows how people can know things. By dessert he has proved God’s existence and explained ”the good,” and suffering too. Distant galaxies hold no terror for him. He arranges them to his liking as an infant might play with marbles. After he has demonstrated what is and what is not, the hot and the cold, he turns his attention to human society and creates the perfect government. The philosopher orders his nation for the benefit of his subjects, for you. He so loves you that he spends long hours considering how to ensure your safety and fill your life with beauty. Were I to invent a state, my own comfort and well-being would be uppermost in my mind. My government would be designed for my happiness, not yours. That’s why I have taken the you out of Utopia and substituted the more accurate I.
The sage Leo Tse claimed that governing a large country was like cooking a small fish: the more you handle it the more of a mess you make of it. And to tell you the truth, I don’t have enough energy anymore to arrange the lives of a quarter of a billion people. Unfortunately, the people keep demanding to be ruled and so I’d have to make some concessions to this popular taste. Aesop tells how the frogs once prayed for a king. They prayed so fervently and frequently that they got on Zeus’s nerves. Still, he was not angry with the poor creatures and so he sent them a log to be their king. Unsatisfied with this laissez faire monarch, the frogs resumed their prayers. At that, Zeus lost his patience and sent them a stork for their king. This new monarch immediately set about his governmental duties by eating as many of his subjects as he could catch. Presumably, the Stork King kept the frogs too busy to pray for another king. Playing King Log to a people eager for laws and regulations would prove no easy task and so my basic form of government would have to be a military dictatorship. Of course, my people would also need some form of national defense to prevent a foreigner from taking my job. But I think I could keep foreign adventurers and domestic malcontents in line with a fairly small force, maybe a third or a quarter of the present US military. I think a hundred billion dollars a year would handle my needs. With the exception of a few forces dedicated to deterring attacks, I’d keep all my troops inside the US where they could keep an eye on the real threat to my enlightened rule.
I would abolish all state governments; they are messy, redundant, and time consuming to the federal government. If this action caused distress to my people, I would only render state governments powerless by apportioning the powers and responsibilities to the localities and the new federal government, that is, me. State legislatures could still convene and debate and deplore if that entertained my people. I would still allow state college football games and colorful festivals where the states could celebrate their proud heritage in native costumes. Any harmless diversion would be permitted but the real power would lie in the city and county governments. If these governments cared to tax their citizens enough, they could restore the American situation of a century ago when the cities were much more involved in governing the people then the federal government. Such a system would not only satisfy my people’s desire for government, it would also give them an increased illusion of political power. The individual finds it easier to believe that his vote and voice actually count on the local level. Except for a few restrictions that my government would impose on the municipalities, my people could indulge their taste for government to their heart’s content. As a side effect, their exertions in participatory democracy would keep them so busy that they might not take much notice of me.
Now we come to the fun part: taxes. But before we start raking in all those billions of dollars, I have to explain another aim of my Itopia. I want my people working and producing goods and services. Any restrictions on industry and trade are anathema to me. Well, I might enforce a few ecological restrictions if my people became frightened, but unfettered industry and trade are my ideals. In the first place, industrious people aren’t likely to busy their heads with overthrowing their leader. In the second place, increase in the material standard of living not only makes the people happy but increases the level of my well-being. Only the person who would rather "reign in hell than serve in heaven" would consider trading places with a 19th century monarch. The average American lives much better than Queen Victoria’s children unless the frills of monarchy are worth more than good health and comfort. Accordingly, I would eschew corporate and capital gains taxes; I would also prohibit the localities from levying such taxes. I admit that corporate taxes are very useful to the ruler: He taxes companies, who must then pass on the taxes to the consumers, thereby dishonestly raising money without incurring the blame of the people. But such taxes would put my industries at a disadvantage in world markets. International trade is much too important for me to hobble my industries in this way. Capital gains taxes discourage changes in investment, particularly to the speculative ventures so important to progress. I would also prohibit duties, which provoke trade wars and would prevent my people from enjoying the full fruits of their labor.
The present government needs 1500 billion a year. I figure that I could squeeze by on $152 billion a year. That would be $100 billion for my military, $50 billion miscellaneous, and $2 billion for me. One billion of that would be my salary and the other billion would take care of foreign mansions, bribes to heads of states, and any other details to make my very probable exile not only possible but also comfortable. I’d let the municipalities take care of most of the details of government if they cared to. And remember, a billion is a thousand million and I am fairly thrifty.
A 9% sales tax could probably finance my government. But I feel that using a single tax to raise all one’s money could create dislocations and encourage black markets. I would hold down my sales tax to a maximum of 5% , lowering it if my revenues could be enhanced by other means or if sales projections warranted it. Whatever the tax rate, the municipalities could never raise the total sales tax to above 7% .
I would raise my next big chunk of money from alcohol, drugs, tobacco, firearms, gambling, prostitution, and any other product that my people could be induced to feel ambivalent about. I call these the ”gray industries.” Virtually everyone uses at least one of these products but hardly anyone uses them all: the gambler despises the drug user, the gun nut hates the whoremonger, and so on. Everyone thinks the other fellow ought to be taxed for his vice and many people actually believe they ought to be taxed for their own vices. I would like the squeeze as much money out of these gray industries as possible but I would have to keep in mind the black market reaction. I could get into the distribution of these products and even the manufacture of some of them; however, I’ve noticed a problem with that course of action. In Ohio, it is almost universally recognized that the state’s monopoly on hard liquor not only costs the consumer more but nets the government less than a simple tax would. The bureaucracy needed to maintain the monopoly siphons off all the profit. Ohio’s lottery had to remove all its fancy computerized machines when someone realized that it wasn’t making any money from them because of the ultraexpensive contract with the machines’ suppliers. I would favor straightforward taxation of the gray industries enforced by enough officious inspectors and harsh penalties to discourage cheating. Of course, my well-paid secret police would keep a sharp eye on the inspectors.
Keeping the gray industries healthy would be one of my top priorities. In the first place, I hope to earn nearly a third of my budget from them. In the second place, their health would head off the formation of organized crime groups that might challenge my rule. In 19th century America, where the gray industries were generally legal, organized crime existed only among a few nationalities, such as the Italians and the Chinese. Of course, these groups had originally formed as legitimate expressions of opposition to their own tyrannous governments. When the US government experimented with its own insane brand of tyranny by prohibiting alcohol, organized crime became a national power, completing the corruption of big city government. I would certainly allow the municipalities to regulate the gray industries but I would regard any movement tending toward prohibiting one of them as prima facie evidence of corruption and pandering to special interests. I’m afraid that I would have to mobilize my troops.
The country would be divided into about a hundred military districts called Federal Nurturates (the army is the nurturer of the people). If you’re interested in where these areas would be, look at a telephone area code map; each area corresponds to a military district. Since meddling in international affairs would increase my workload, only a small part of my military would counter foreign aggression. I think some germ, chemical, and nuclear weapons along with a few assassination teams ought to be a sufficient deterrent. If the world situation changed, I’d have to alter my tactics. The real purpose of my army would be protection of my perfect state.
About a fifth of my army would be professional, consisting of career soldiers and secret police. The rest would be made up of ill-trained and poorly paid draftees of both sexes. They would be provided with some training in automatic weapons, tanks, and techniques of fighting in US cities. The real job of these draftees would be roaming the cities in bright uniforms apparently helping the local police. In reality, they would report only to their own officers, who would be quite uncooperative with the police. They would aid the police only if public opinion demanded it, such as in the case of some notorious murder. The purpose of the army would be the control of local governments, not people. Where corruption or incompetence became unpopular, the army would take over the police department, arrest the politicians on real or trumped up charges, and conduct new elections. When the local politicians were not too offensive and were not engaged in destroying industry or trade, the army would be seen as bumbling Keystone Kops, harmless and friendly toward the people, perhaps even friendly toward the criminals.
This army would also administer a minimal poverty program. Wherever needed, it would set up concentration camps with syrupy names like the Haven of Mercy. Anyone could come and go freely at any of these camps; no paperwork would ever be performed. The clients would be housed in barely heated barracks. Slipshod dividers might give families a little privacy in good times. When there was crowding, the army would commandeer local gyms and issue sleeping bags. The food would be very healthy and extremely unappetizing, more fit for hogs than people. A crude vitamin enriched cornmeal mush with a vegetable would be on the menu daily. Perhaps a yeast based protein supplement would be available. Wheat products, corn, rice, and beans would be ubiquitous. Meat would be prohibited. I would certainly publicize these meals as ethically and environmentally correct. With this program, I would take credit for helping the poor. As it happens, I am offended by hunger and homelessness. If the local politicians cared to do more for the poor, they’d just have to steal their own money.
I suppose that I would have to spend some time sorting out the mess my predecessors made of the country. A five trillion dollar debt is no big worry but the US is probably scheduled to spend ten to twenty trillion right now in pensions of one sort or another. Getting out of Medicare would be fairly easy; I would simply end the system. When people started to complain, I would draft 20% of the nation’s doctors to take care of the elderly and then draft an additional 20% each year until the problem (or the complaints) went away. My actual system would be a little more complicated and subtle but you get the idea.
Even though I would inherit enormous debts, I would also inherit a lot of real estate and a number of working printing presses. By selling one and using the other, the problem might be solved in ten or twenty years. First, I would outlaw Social Security and schedule a reduction of payments down to zero in twenty five years. I would sell government property to make these and other pension payments. If such sales were not enough to cover indebtedness, I’d kill two birds with one stone by printing the money to meet my obligations. Not only would I pay off the pensions with worthless money, I’d inflate the currency so that my debt would be reduced in real terms. I could create only 4% or 5% inflation without risking serious economic repercussions. If that weren’t enough, I’d pass the buck to the municipalities. If they did nothing, well, there would always be my poverty concentration camps.
It might seem that I am being a bit hard on the municipalities but I regard them as my natural competitors. Nineteenth century experience shows that large cities with large concentrations of people and money bred corruption, ambition, and dissatisfaction among the people. When the federal government took over municipal powers and income sources, corruption followed the money into the federal government. By exacting taxes from these potential trouble spots and subjecting them to political terror, I’d hope to forestall my overthrow.
Along the same lines, I would turn the whole legal profession into a department of the civil service and ban anyone else from practicing law. Every time I turn on my TV, I hear someone advocating the socialization of one industry or another. Nine times out of ten, the preacher of socialization is a lawyer. Strangely enough, I have never heard of anyone’s demanding the socialization of the legal profession. There are good and compelling reasons why all lawyers ought to be civil servants and I’m sure that I can find the intellectuals to discover them. Given the appropriate schedules of payments for legal services and percentages of rewards in civil cases, my ”Lawyer’s Guild” ought to pay for itself and make me a tidy profit. Of course, it’s inexcusable that the rich man can hire fancy lawyers to avoid justice or oppress the poor. That’s one good reason to socialize them. There’s another benefit. The law is a mixed system: the prosecutors are socialistic and the defenders are free enterprise. It should come as no surprise, then, that this country is unable to convict criminals or sentence them in the rare event that they are convicted. Rules of evidence and constitutional protections have been manipulated by free market defense lawyers to create a system where a good lawyer is better than an innocent conscience. By socializing the legal profession, I would rebalance the scales of justice with equal parts of incompetence in both pans. It might take a while for the ineptitude of my legal civil service to pay dividends in reducing crime, but when I look at our newly socialized medical profession, I’m confident that it would eventually be a great boon to my people.
I have one last political reform in mind. I’m all for the freedom of press and free speech but the freedoms can certainly not be applied to the people’s airways on television. Accordingly, I would permit the full expression of political ideas in any medium except TV. No one can really believe that a candidate with millions of dollars in TV time could be challenged effectively by a poor candidate. I would ban political advertising. debate, and airing of any show that might promote political action. Of course, I would do this in a very half-baked way, concentrating only on those programs that tended to bring my own reign into disrepute.
From time to time I would appear in public, maybe at a Superbowl or in a particularly inviting restaurant. My clothes would be as poor and sloppy as the situation would allow. Every so often I would give a TV talk but only for half an hour, and then only during Roseanne or Baby Talk or something like that. I’d appear in a book lined study with a rented dog and my family standing awkwardly around me. My talk would be filled with platitudes and predictions of better times. I might bring out a misleading graph or two. And at the end of each show (with plenty of time left over so that my people didn’t have to miss two TV shows), I’d look seriously into the camera and say, ”God bless you each and every one.”