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End Taxation Without Representation

Someone has to take responsibility for our nation’s capital.

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(Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images)

I recently picked up my Washington, D.C., license plates after months of hang-ups and bureaucratic delay. I was relieved: This was the first time my car was road legal in nearly a decade. When I walked out of the Department of Motor Vehicles in Southwest and knelt before my bumper to attach the plates, I was greeted with this slogan: “End Taxation Without Representation.”

Since 2016, that sentence has been printed on nearly every new plate issued in the city. (One notable exception: President Biden.) Prior to that, the slogan had just been “Taxation Without Representation.” But this bare statement of fact, the city council of the time argued, was not enough: adding an “End” is more assertive. And putting it on all license plates effectively enlists the whole city in its leaders’ mission to stop the practice. 

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Not that I am complaining. I am more than happy to be drafted into the ranks. I am a firm believer in ending taxation without representation—that is, the taxation part.  

At the same time, I’m no idealist, and I have read enough Milton Friedman to know that in these matters there is no free lunch. It would not do simply to abrogate Washington, D.C.’s, taxation duties and hope that everything rolls along merrily after that. Someone has to take responsibility for our nation’s capital. And I think it’s pretty obvious who is best suited to have stewardship over the city: the fifty states. 

Of course, the states already do in large part fund Washington’s main industry with their tax dollars (at least in theory). But what I am proposing is more encompassing, and, I think, more true to the spirit in which D.C. was founded. The city was never intended to be an autonomous entity, with its own appetites and interests; it was proposed as a neutral zone between North and South and, for much of its early history, it was pushed around like a pawn by the two opposed powers. 

Yet, from the very beginning, the fact that Washington suffered taxation without representation gave its inhabitants an appetite for things forbidden to them. Not long after the city’s founding, activists within it began demanding representation, pointing to the Boston Tea Party, not thirty years past. The question was thought to be conclusively settled in 1831, when in Loughborough v. Blake the Supreme Court took up the question of whether Congress had a right to impose a direct tax on the District of Columbia. The court, led by Chief Justice John Marshall, found that the body can and should levy taxes in any area governed by the “American empire,” regardless of representation. 

Marshall’s argument in effect kills any push for D.C. statehood on the basis of its taxation status. But it also seems to leave open an unexploited and strange possibility for the District. The Constitution, Marshall writes, makes it plain that when Congress levies taxes on the states, it must apportion the burden equally. “Congress has clearly no power to exempt any state from its due share of the burden,” Marshall writes, hastening to add that “this regulation is expressly confined to the states, and creates no necessity for extending the tax to the District or territories.” If I can extend this line of thought a little bit further, if Congress so chose, it could designate Washington, D.C., as a place with virtually no taxation and no representation. 

Everyone would likely be better off if this were the case. The benefits to D.C. are plain, but, I think, the rewards for those living outside of Washington are much greater. A state of no taxation, no representation essentially rewrites Washington, D.C., as a territorial non-entity: the seat of government, yes, but little else. Everything in the city which at present is funded by its inhabitants would become the responsibility of the country at large, ceding real control over the capital to the states. (I leave it to the wonks to discover a practical way of enacting this proposal.) 

This is true federalism: for decades, Americans of all political persuasions have complained that Washington has too much power in their lives. Putting the capital at the mercy of state funding is just one way to disperse that power across the country.

In any case, the next time you find yourself driving around D.C., remember that those license plates need not be interpreted as a battle cry for statehood. They are just as easily a plea for self-annihilation.

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