What Joe Biden and Henry VII Have in Common
Six months into his presidency, Joe Biden has yet to meet a tax he does not like. He proposes higher rates on income and capital gains. He says we need to boost the estate and gift tax. He is colluding with foreign governments to impose a “global minimal tax” on businesses so as to kneecap low-tax upstarts like Ireland. He constantly demands that “the rich” (thanks to his political connections, he and his family are among them) pay “their fair share” which always means more—always.
Biden’s tax addiction reminds me of an old concept from British history known as “Morton’s Fork.” In his biography of the first of the Tudor monarchs, Henry VII, who reigned from 1485 to 1509, Sean Cunningham explains it:
If a potential donor [taxpayer] appeared to be wealthy, he could probably afford to pay; if he seemed to have a frugal existence, then he was perhaps hoarding or investing his cash, so could contribute generously.
Morton’s Fork is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t philosophy of taxation. One way or another, you’re going to get forked. For one who fancies himself “progressive,” Biden seems astonishingly unaware that his “soak ‘em good” mentality is medieval, if not ancient.
Henry’s tax requests were often intended to pay the expenses of his foreign adventures, which only added to the reasons people objected.
The notion gets its name from John Morton, whom Henry VII first appointed to the important clerical post of Archbishop of Canterbury in 1485. Two years later, Henry made him Lord Chancellor, the equivalent of Secretary of the Treasury. Morton’s job was to talk Parliament into granting the King the right to impose whatever taxes he might desire.
Both Biden and Henry VII, by the way, sought to dramatically boost the powers of tax collectors to extort money and probe the incomes and finances of taxpayers. Years after a tax was imposed, Henry’s minions were hunting down suspected scofflaws, often cooking up “documentation” to justify the seizure of assets.
Henry didn’t always get what he asked for and if we’re lucky, Biden won’t either. To protest Henry’s onerous levies, rebels staged numerous uprisings, big and small. One such rebellion, centered in Cornwall, nearly toppled the regime. On more than one occasion, Parliament denied his request for a new or higher “benevolence”—a classically English understatement synonymous with “tax.”
Henry’s tax requests were often intended to pay the expenses of his foreign adventures, which only added to the reasons people objected. He could be bold in offering other rationales too. In 1504, for instance, he asked Parliament for money to pay for the lavish knighting of his son Arthur. The only problem was that Arthur was knighted in 1489 (fifteen years before) and had died of plague in 1502. This was akin to padding the expense account with bills long past, and Parliament settled on just a partial “revenue enhancement” for this dubious purpose.
After Henry died in 1509, his son (the infamous Henry VIII) inherited the throne. Like his father, he taxed as much as he could get away with.
Henry’s profligate shenanigans did not make John Morton’s job easy. Like Joe Biden a half-millennium later, he had to come up with some rhetorical flourishes. Morton argued that whoever Henry wanted to soak should feel morally obligated to pay his “fair share” (as defined self-servingly by the King) but he was also much more creative in his rhetoric than Biden. When he came up with the argument that the targeted taxpayers must have it no matter how frugal or extravagant they might live, a new standard in demagoguery was established. Records do not indicate whether Morton kept a straight face or not as he made the case.
The catch-22 behind Morton’s Fork has morphed into a modern, broader notion not necessarily tax-related: a kind of “false dilemma in which contradictory observations lead to the same conclusion.” But it originated with a tax-happy potentate who needed any argument his bootlicking toadies could contrive to squeeze more blood from the turnips.
After Henry died in 1509, his son (the infamous Henry VIII) inherited the throne. Like his father, he taxed as much as he could get away with, and whoever he thought had the money to pay. As I previously wrote, he even taxed the people by debauching the currency. But I give him credit for at least this one thing: He presided over a commission that investigated his father’s tax administration. It concluded that Henry VII was ruthless and greedy—which, ironically, was precisely what he had often accused his tax targets of being.
Alas, as the French say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The post What Joe Biden and Henry VII Have in Common was first published by the Foundation for Economic Education, and is republished here with permission. Please support their efforts.