Colonies, Taxation, and Freedom

Paying taxes makes you free. Can I really be saying that? Yes. Today I’ll look at British North America; tomorrow, Gaza.

I used to think of colonies as assets; the home country, the metropolis, exploited them for their resources and cheap labour. But colonies can be expensive to maintain and in nineteenth-century Britain there were always those who complained that keeping the British North American colonies was just too d. expensive, a significant drain on the home-country economy. Colonies have to be governed and so the home country sends over administrators, and pays their salaries, and the salaries of their aides and the colonists brought on board as advisors. Colonies have to be defended. The home country outfits and supports colonial militias. And so on. Think of it this way: the British taxpayer was supporting a raft of governmental services in a distant country.

The critics asked what they were getting for this outlay. Glory. Prestigious employment opportunities for their younger sons, in the colonies and in the Colonial Office. Somewhere to dump failed British entrepreneurs, orphans and urban riff raff. Hardly worth it, eh?

The system suited some of the colonists very well. It suited especially those whose salaries as advisors and commissions in the militias were being underwritten. Not to mince words, it suited the colonial oligarchs, the members of the Family Compact, the Chateau Clique, the “official parties” in the Maritime Provinces. And their friends and families. (And “their cousins and their uncles and their aunts.”)

Think about how it worked. The colonial franchise was a broad one for that period, elections were held frequently, and after each election new people and parties, with new ideas and aspirations would show up in the colonial Assembly. But almost without fail the British-appointed Governor would elevate to the important posts of government in the Executive Council and Legislative Council, familiar members of the Family Compact or the Clique, paying their salaries as necessary out of funds supplied by Britain. It would be the same old gang running the province! You might suppose that price of membership in the Family Compact was deference to imperial masters. But it was never clear whether the Governors were really in charge. Lord Durham, for one, was of the opinion that most Governors were manipulated by their Executive Councillors.

Hence the profound dissatisfaction of the colonial radicals and the constitutional liberals. Hence the Rebellions of 1837 and ’38. In 1848, at last, in first one British North American province and then another, the liberals triumphed. They won the right to pay the expenses of government. The term we use for the political practice they introduced is “responsible government.” Thenceforth the salaries of Executive Councillors would be paid for out of funds voted by the elective Legislative Assembly. Freedom at last! The oligarchs went down to defeat.

Being taxed is the mark of a free citizen.

It’s something to remember next March and April as we fill out forms and hunt for elusive deduction slips. But there is another matter to consider. Aren’t we today, we Canadians, paying the expenses of governments in some distant countries? We don’t call ourselves imperialists. Heaven forbid. We call ourselves benefactors, good-deed doers.

The questions for tomorrow are these: Who’s paying the expenses in Gaza? Who is taxed? Who are the colonizers?

1 Response to “Colonies, Taxation, and Freedom”

  1. 1 Power & Colonialism « Spatialities Trackback on January 19, 2009 at 1:07 pm

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