POOR THOMAS JEFFERSON. HE'S NOT turning over in his grave, he's spinning like a top. The county our Founding Father lived in is taxing writers.
While Jefferson passionately believed in free speech, the Board of Supervisors of Albemarle County would prefer that you pay for it. These civic worthies have determined that if you make more than $5,000 per year and file an IRS 1040 form or a Schedule C, you must procure a business license just like a plumber or a store owner. The fee for the license is 20 cents per $100 of your gross receipts, payable to Albemarle County. For writers, that amounts to a writing tax, pure and simple, since they are already paying income tax on the same money. What a nifty way to pump up the county coffers without raising taxes across the board. But whatever happened to the First Amendment -- "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech"?
Of course, when I had a lawyer complain about this, the county contended that the tax isn't unconstitutional at all. County Attorney George R. St. John said it would only be unconstitutional if the tax were invoked to control what I say. In other words, Albemarle County doesn't care what I say, it only cares that I pay.
Our esteemed board members will not only seize the buck, they'll pass it, too. When one seeks to find the person responsible for this dubious licensing fee, which was instituted in 1973 (but unknown to me until this fall, causing me some vicious back taxes and penalties), they say it's the state government's fault. But nearby Orange County requires no such license, though its towns of Orange and Gordonsville do. Louisa and Nelson counties don't levy the tax, but Greene County does. So it's not really a state problem.
Because writers work in isolation, it is much more difficult for us to organize than, say, real estate agents. The average income earned from writing is $4,775 per year, according to the Columbia University Survey on Writers. This sorry fact means that most writers can't afford the kind of protracted, expensive legal fees necessary to bring the First Amendment question to court. So few writers make more than $5,000, there aren't enough to make legislators sit up and take notice. (Whether the Virginia chapter of the ACLU will challenge the licensing and taxing of writers is still not known. It is aware of the problem.)
But what upsets me more than the potential violation of my First Amendment rights is the lowering of Art to stand beside Commerce. Even if art generates income -- and we sure hope it does -- that is not its primary intent. To live in a society that is unable to distinguish between commerce and art is to descend to banal vulgarity.
Art is not objects nor cash nor even beauty but rather an idea sustained by deep emotion. A novel is lived from within. A novelist, like any other artist, needs to work without interference, however slight, from the government. The matter of a license is an intrusion into the creative process. It makes one worry: What next?