J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, August 25, 2006

Publicans and Politicians

Earlier this month I wrote about Samuel Adams as a "publican," or person who contracts with a government to collect taxes, keeping a share of the revenue as his reward. That manner of governing was so out of date by the 1930s that John C. Miller didn't seem to recognize the term when he wrote his biography of Adams, and assumed it must have meant "tavernkeeper."

But publicans are coming back! According to the New York Times on 20 August,

Within two weeks, the I.R.S. will turn over data on 12,500 taxpayers—each of whom owes $25,000 or less in back taxes—to three collection agencies. . . . The move, an initiative of the Bush administration, represents the first step in a broader plan to outsource the collection of smaller tax debts to private companies over time. Although I.R.S. officials acknowledge that this will be much more expensive than doing it internally, they say that Congress has forced their hand by refusing to let them hire more revenue officers, who could pull in a lot of easy-to-collect money.
The publican firms are expected to keep about 23% of the revenue they collect. I.R.S. personnel tend to cost only about 3% of the revenue they bring in. Congress and the Bush-Cheney administration appear to be so eager to limit the government payroll and help well-connected private businesses that such obvious inefficiency doesn't matter to them. Nor the apparent need to warn the public about scam artists claiming to be under contract to the I.R.S., as the agency just did.

Though the administration isn't using the term "publicans," that's the simple dictionary term for private tax collectors. Boston also used that system to limit public salaries. Similarly, the town also relied on private firefighting companies (see 2001 article by new Tufts professor Benjamin Carp), who were licensed and rewarded for being first on the scene of a blaze, but not trained, equipped, or employed full-time by the town. (In 1760, a fire that started in William Jackson's store wiped out Boston's midsection. Coincidence?)

The term "publican" may regain contemporary currency in another way, too. Describing George W. Bush's press conference on Monday, the Times reported:
In calling the opposition the “Democrat Party” Mr. Bush was repeating a truncated, incorrect version of the party’s name that some Democrats have called a slight, an assertion the White House dismissed as ridiculous.
Of course, "democrat" has been a term of pride in America since Jacksonian times (while "republican" seems reduced to "not Democratic, not monarchist, but don't ask for any specifics"). But to judge the veracity of the White House's denial about Bush's intentions, we can consider that in the same press conference he claimed, "Nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack” on America on 11 Sept 2001, neglecting how Dick Cheney, Stephen J. Hadley, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and others in the administration did just that.

If Bush and his partisans want to use the label "Democrat Party," I figure members of the Democratic Party can refer to their opponents as the "Publican Party." With the White House and Congress turning over tax collection to modern publicans, at significant cost to the nation, the label seems all too appropriate.


chris said...

Very interesting post. I agree that the use of modern publicans is an awful idea. I hope nothing comes of it.

Excellent blog. You've found a reader who is sure to make this a regular stop.

J. L. Bell said...

It looks like the I.R.S. use of private debt collectors is a done deal. The program was supposed to start last week.