Paul Jacob

So you might see why this particular species is valuable. And this particular example is extra valuable, since it is the only whole fossil of Basilosaurus Isis’s remains.

Which begs the question: How much?

We are told there is no wide market in fossils. Too bad. (An open market would actually solve a lot of problems associated with the black market and, at the same time, aid science, since authentication processes would be required, and therefore give market value to paleontological expertise. But that’s in the future . . . not our experience.) Sans markets, how do you establish value?

I mean, how do you, if you are an Egyptian customs agent?

I guess you say, “Hey: Ten grand a leg!” and demand $40,000.

That, in any case, seems to be the current situation. The reporter tells us that the whale fossil is being held up in Egyptian customs. A follow-up article informs us that “three environmental NGOs have launched a campaign demanding the release” of the reconstructed remains.

It’s one thing to send a fossil up the Nile. It’s another to send it through a bureaucratic bog.

There must be a lot more to the story. Do mummies returning to Egypt get taxed this way? Egyptian customs officials deny the story. The denial seems, however, a bit like a river in Egypt: The story’s unlikely to dry up so easily, reflecting, as it does, a perennial truth about bureaucracy. Bureaucracies don’t listen to common sense. They follow the rules. As bureaucrats understand them, and they’re not in the business of getting out of the way of science or ancient whales

But until the story settles out, and the truth appears in strata, I’ll settle for a more down-home take-away: Arbitrary taxation is bad. Taxes that require fixing a value outside of actual market transactions are especially troublesome.

That’s why I don’t like property taxes. The valuation of the house or land, in question — aside from an actual sale — sometimes becomes pure fiction.

That’s why I prefer a retail sales taxes to the horrible, European-style VATs.

That’s why I don’t like tariffs, even if they are in the Constitution.

No sane person likes being taxed. But taxation that requires an arbitrary fixing of value — taxation that requires bureaucratic invasion and appraisal of private property — is far more intrusive by nature, and more likely to distort economic relations than, say, a simple transaction tax fixed as a percentage of money on one side of the transaction.

We should find ways to avoid the vague and arbitrary taxes. First and foremost.

The best way to do this is to decrease (and I mean really decrease) the size of government, so we aren’t tempted to tax everything in sight.

Including the remains of long-legged whales.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.