American Tax Resisters review

In: Daniel In The News

29 Mar 2014

This is my latest book review for the Financial Times. The link to the piece on the FT site can be found here.

American Tax Resisters, by Romain D Huret, Harvard University Press, 2014.

Few people like paying taxes, but there are some individuals, particularly in the US, for whom active tax resistance is central to their identity. It marks them out as deeply sceptical that Big Government can play a positive role in people’s lives. It also signifies their hostility to the redistribution of income and wealth. Tax resisters see progressive taxation as inherently unjust.

If tax resisters – usually depicted as hardline conservatives – constitute one end of the political spectrum, it is no surprise their opponents argue the opposite. Those who favour relatively high taxation, an extensive system of entitlements and redistribution are normally dubbed as liberals in contemporary parlance.

It is to the credit of Romain Huret, associate professor of American history at the University of Lyon 2 in France, that he puts the tax debate in this broader context. Tax is not just a fiscal matter but is often at the heart of political debate and competing conceptions of social justice.

Most of American Tax Resisters is a narrative history of US tax resistance from the civil war of 1861-65 to the present day. Federal taxation has increased enormously over that period, but there has been much ebb and flow. The 16th amendment to the constitution, adopted in 1913, was a high point of the progressive era of the early 20th century: federal income taxes were made explicitly constitutional.

Progressive taxation also enjoyed widespread support between the second world war and the late 1970s. During that period it was seen typically as a sign of social solidarity, with the rich happy to give support to the poor. Irving Berlin even wrote a song, “I Paid My Income Tax Today”, in 1942. He donated the copyright to the Treasury.

It is hard to imagine anyone composing a similar ditty today. Tax resisters have mounted a concerted campaign against the level of taxation and its progressive character. Some presidents, notably Ronald Reagan and George W Bush, expressed considerable sympathy for their goals. Tax resisters, including the Tea Party as its latest manifestation, remain a minority but have shifted the terms of the debate.

Huret clearly favours progressive taxation, but the main body of his text is fairly balanced. His key innovation is linking tax resistance to the narrow interests of the white and most affluent section of US society. By implication those who favour relatively high taxes represent by far the majority, including the non-white population.

However, Huret oversimplifies key elements of the debate. This is partly the result of the confusing terminology. For instance, the meaning of “liberalism” has shifted fundamentally since before the first world war.

In the postwar years, the tax resistance movement was reinvigorated by conservative men and women living in the suburbs. In their white middle-class world, they made federal taxes a life-or-death choice that energised every aspect of life.

Scepticism about Big Government was historically more characteristic of classical liberalism than of conservatism. America’s founding fathers – who held that “all men are created equal” – upheld the classical liberal view that government should play a limited role in society. That helps explain why there was so much emphasis in the constitution’s original wording on the role of the states rather than a powerful federal government. It also follows that, in the 20th- and 21st-century debates, scepticism towards an extensive role for government is not inherently conservative in the proper sense of the term.

Nor is support for large government in itself enlightened or radical. Powerful forces in the American elite favoured, indeed still support, a substantial role for government funded by relatively high taxation. Such elements were often as elitist and white as the tax resisters. Most strikingly, many progressives of the early 20th century openly embraced racial politics and eugenics.

Finally, Huret fails to realise that, in practice if not in terms of rhetoric, those who favour higher taxation have won. Total government spending in the US increased from under 8 per cent in 1900 to about 39 per cent in 2012, despite many years of tax resistance.

For better or worse, the US has travelled a long way from its origins as a low tax and low-spending country.