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Blogindlæg af Jørn Sønderholm, sommer 2014

Taxation without Representation This column is written in Washington, DC (District of Columbia). For the past six months, I have been living here in the capital of the United States. The weather is unusually pleasant for this time of year. August has arrived, and normally the summers in DC are brutally warm and humid, but this year, June and July have been very agreeable with lots of sun, a dry breeze and very moderate temperatures. If this had been like any other, more normal, summer, the streets would not have been filled with kids playing and their parents enjoying a cup of coffee in the sun: everybody would have been indoor paying silent homage to the inventors of air-condition.

If I leave my desk and step outside, I will, if I look closely at any of the cars parked on the street, see the distinct type of number plate that any car, registered in DC, has. A token of this type of number plate looks like this:

One thing that is of interest here is the slogan at the bottom of the number plate. The string of words “Taxation Without Representation” is famous among DC residents. The slogan refers to the fact that DC residents are legally obliged to pay tax to the federal government, but do not have any representation in the federal government. As opposed to other U.S. residents, who pay tax to the federal government, DC residents are not represented by two senators in the U.S. Senate, and they do not send representatives to the U.S. House of Representatives. In other words, DC residents have no representation in the U.S. Congress.

Historically, the slogan “Taxation Without Representation” has its origin in the period leading up to the United States’ war of independence with Britain (1775-1782). A fundamental difference of opinion existed between British authorities and the Americans on the issues of how to tax the colonists and how to have them represented in the British Parliament in London. Americans held on to a notion of actual representation. This meant that in order to be legitimately taxed by the British parliament, the Americans should have actual legislators/representatives seated and voting in the British Parliament. The British defended the opposing concept of virtual representation. This concept was grounded in the idea that a member of the British Parliament virtually represented every person in the empire. Therefore, there was no need for a specific representative from Virginia or Massachusetts to be seated in the British Parliament.

Do the residents of DC today have a legitimate moral complaint against the U.S. federal government or is it morally legitimate for the U.S. government to uphold the status quo for DC residents (perhaps with a reference to something like the concept of virtual representation)?

This is an interesting issue in political philosophy that raises important questions of what the legitimate role of the state is and under what conditions, if any, the state can extract, with violence or with the threat of violence, tax contributions from its citizens. At both the bachelor- and master-level, the study program Applied Philosophy at Aalborg University offers courses that help students think critically and coherently about this issue and a host of other related ones in political philosophy. It is fairly easy to just assert one’s views when it comes to normative political issues. It is, however, more difficult to argue for one’s views and hold an overall position, involving views on a number of different normative issues, that is logically consistent. Political philosophy, like any other area of philosophy, therefore requires something that the current weather in DC nicely accommodates: a cool head.

- Jørn Sønderholm