Correct Your Axioms

Make sure you know the truth and don't make a fool of yourself

March 22, 2024

So the other day (actually a few weeks ago, it took me a while to get around to editing this) the idea came to me to write an article comparing the unconstitutional $200 tax stamp required to buy an item regulated by America’s National Firearms Act to the various poll taxes that several states in the US had in place at various times which were abolished by the 24th Amendment to the Constitution. I’m probably not going to write that article now because as I was doing some research for that I made a much more important and thought provoking discovery worth bringing to your attention that has nothing to do with the NFA or poll taxes.

Going into that research I knew a few things about poll taxes: I knew that a poll tax was a tax people were required to pay in order to vote. I knew they were made illegal at some point. And I knew that Henry David Thoreau went to jail because he refused to pay his poll tax, and he talks about his experience in jail in his famous essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. From those facts I had made a few assumptions, which for years my mind has treated as fact: I assumed that poll taxes were made illegal either while Thoreau was alive or within ten or twenty years of his death. And I assumed that Civil Disobedience would talk about the evils of poll taxes at some point, in fact I’m quite certain that at some point in my public school education a teacher taught my class that Thoreau was very anti-poll tax.

Then I did that research and found my assumptions to be wrong. First I saw that poll taxes were abolished by the 24th Amendment and instantly I knew that that number was way too high for it to have happened anywhere near Thoreau’s time. I then decided to watch a few quick YouTube videos about poll taxes to get up to speed on poll taxes and they all focused on the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the videos lumped poll taxes in with Jim Crow laws and other things that some states put in place trying to prevent black people from voting. The videos made no mention of poll taxes before the Civil War or even before the 15th Amendment which recognized the right of black people to vote.

These videos also didn’t mention Thoreau, a man who in my mind has always been a central figure in the poll tax debate. I then decided to take a look at Wikipedia’s article on poll taxes in America, and not only did I not see a mention of Thoreau, but according to Wikipedia the state of Massachusetts (where Thoreau resided) didn’t have a poll tax until 1865, three years after Thoreau died. This means at least one of two things: Wikipedia is wrong, or the poll tax which Thoreau was jailed for not paying wasn’t a poll tax as we understand it today, it could have been a more ordinary tax which people of his time referred to as a poll tax (I haven’t done any further investigation into this).

And of course to top off my research I reread Civil Disobedience which I found to be shockingly relevant to many of today’s issues. (I highly recommend reading it possibly annually probably around the time you pay your taxes) As I read Civil Disobedience I did not get the feeling that Thoreau was anti-poll tax, in fact he didn’t spend any time talking about the process of voting or advocating for the right of anyone to vote, he came across a bit skeptical of democracy. Instead he spent time talking about how he didn’t want to be associated with a State which was complacent with slavery and he explained that he didn’t pay his poll tax because he did not want to support a war which was being fought on (what to him was) the other side of the world against people he had nothing to do with. Thoreau was not anti-poll tax, he was anti-tax, or at least against paying taxes for things that would not benefit him and his community (he happily paid the highway tax). My understanding of all this history was wrong.

Now I ask, why did I tell you this story? There are a few reasons.

First, and most obvious, is that we need to recognize that our recollection and understanding of things we learned in school may not be accurate. We likely don’t remember all of the important details and we definitely weren’t taught all the details. I’m sure I was taught that poll taxes were something that MLK Jr and friends fought against but that information obviously didn’t stick in my head. And I’m positive Thoreau’s philosophy of civil disobedience was never explained to me, because why would a government run school want to teach anti-government ideas? Had I started talking about poll taxes based on the knowledge I had a few days ago I would have made a fool of myself. It is important for us to remember that we often don’t know what we are talking about when it comes to topics we have not personally dug into.

But another, more interesting, thing we learn here is that everyone has a different understanding of history and the world around them. The history lesson your parents had on poll taxes was different from the one you got and your children aren’t getting the same one you had either.

From mathematics we learn about the concept of axioms, or statements which we assume to be true in order to pursue an argument or to develop a greater understanding of things. For example, all the basic rules of arithmetic, geometry, algebra and calculus are standard axioms upon which the whole world of math, science and engineering rely upon. If two mathematicians aren’t relying on the same axioms for their work their work won’t be compatible. Or for a simpler example, if you have a math problem which reads, “Solve for y in the equation y=2x+4 where x=5,” then x=5 is an axiom that you are asked to work with and if you instead use the axiom x=3 you won’t find the correct value for y.

Our individual understandings of history, philosophy, science, along with our “lived experience” (to borrow a term from the woke crowd) form the axioms through which we understand the world and form our opinions of things. Because we all have unique understandings of things and unique experiences we are all working off of a different set of axioms, so in order to communicate effectively with others we need to take time to understand the axioms those around you are using and to let them know the axioms you view the world through. This is why they say that when you are in some sort of debate you need to understand where your opponent is coming from and why I had to spend a paragraph of this article explaining what an axiom is. One of the main purposes of education is to help people develop a set of axioms that are compatible with their neighbors’.

Bad things happen when people aren’t working off of the same axioms. Looking at the topic of Donald Trump is probably the easiest way to illustrate this. On one hand we have a whole bunch of people who trust mainstream news and are convinced that Trump is a dangerous insurrectionist who wants to destroy democracy, and on the other hand we have a whole bunch of people who see that this is a bunch of nonsense. It is not possible for an MSNBC watcher and a Republican voter to have a productive conversation about Donald Trump because they are working off of wildly different axioms.

So, what do we do about this? First we must seek to learn the truth in all things, especially in things like poll taxes where you think you already know it, this is a humbling lifelong endeavor which will help us view the world through the correct axioms. Next we need to spread that truth to others in a loving, charitable, and patient way; especially when you are trying to change their opinion on something. For example, if you want to convince someone that the climate change narrative is a scam then it would be much more productive for you to point out a fact like the polar bear population has been dramatically rising over the last several years despite what the activist have been saying, instead of bluntly saying that climate change is a hoax then going off into a rant about how Bill Gates is evil or something like that.

And I guess I’m starting to go off on a tangent here about persuasion so I should wrap up this article here since I could ramble on that topic for quite a while, I’ll save those ramblings for another day.

Anyways, learn the truth, correct your axioms, and spread the truth.