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review of Romain D. Huret, 'American Tax Resisters'

Without Feathers

April 16, 2014

I do not know if he was an ancestor of the talk-show host, but one Jean-Baptiste Colbert served as minister of finance for Louis XIV. A page on the tourism-boosting website for Versailles notes that his name lived on "in the concept of colbertism, an economic theory involving strict state control and protectionism."

An apt phrase can echo down through the ages, and the 17th-century Colbert turned at least a couple of them. The idea that each nation has a "balance of trade" was his, for one. And in a piece of wit that surely went over well at court, Colbert explained that "the art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least amount of hissing."

Procrastination makes tax resisters of us all, at one time or another. But mostly we submit, just to get it over with, and we keep the hissing to a prudent minimum. Not so the politicians, ideologues, and organizations chronicled by Romain D. Huret in American Tax Resisters (Harvard University Press). Relatively few of them carried rebellion so far as to risk imprisonment or bankruptcy in defense of their principles by outright refusing to pay up. But they were unrelentingly vocal about their fear that the state was hell-bent on reducing them to peonage.

American Tax Resisters proves a little more narrowly focused than its title would suggest; its central concern is with opposition to the income tax, though Huret's interest also extends to protest against any form of progressive taxation. The author is an associate professor of American history at the University of Lyon 2 in France, and writes that he’s now spent two decades pondering "why Americans had such a complex relationship with their federal government."

In selecting one aspect of that complex relationship to study, he makes some surprising though defensible choices. He says very little about the Boston Tea Party or Shay's rebellion, for example. Instead, he takes the Civil War as the moment when anti-tax sentiments began to be expressed in terms that have persisted, with relatively little variation, ever since. The book is weighted more heavily toward narrative than analysis, but the role of major U.S. military commitments in generating and consolidating the country’s tax system does seem to be a recurrent theme.

Before taking office, Lincoln held that government funds ought to be raised solely through tariffs collected, he said, "in large parcels at a few commercial points.” Doing so would require "comparatively few officers in their collection.” In the early months of the war, his administration tried to supplement revenue through an income tax that largely went uncollected. With most of the country’s wealth concentrated in the Northeast, most of the burden would have fallen on a few states.

Instead, revenue came in through the sale of war bonds as well as the increased taxation of goods of all kinds, which meant driving up the prices of household commodities. By 1863, a Congressman from the North was warning of "the enslavement of the white race by debt and taxes and arbitrary power.” The link between anti-tax sentiment and racial politics only strengthened after the Confederacy’s defeat.

The need to pay off war debts, including interest on bonds, kept many of the new taxes imposed by the Lincoln administration in place into the 1880s. Businessmen who prospered during the conflict, as well as tycoons making new fortunes, resented any taxation of their incomes -- let alone the progressive sort, in which the rate increased as the amount of income did. Anti-tax writers insisted that progressive taxation was a policy of European origin, and “communistic,” and even a threat to the nation’s manhood, since it might (through some unspecified means) encourage women to assert themselves in public.

Another current of anti-tax sentiment reflected the anxiety of whites in Dixie, faced with the menace of African-American equality, backed up by the efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau and other Reconstruction-era government agencies. Huret reprints an anti-tax poster from 1866 in which hard-working white men produce the riches taxed to keep a caricatural ex-slave in happy idleness.

The rhetoric and imagery of anti-tax protests from the late 19th century have shown themselves to be exceptionally durable (only the typography makes that poster seem old-fashioned) and they recur throughout Huret’s account of American tax resistance in the 20th century and beyond. With each new chapter, there is at least one moment when it feels as if the names of the anti-tax leaders and organizations have changed, but not much else. Certainly not the complaints.

Yet that’s not quite true. Something else does emerge in American Tax Resisters, particularly in the chapters covering more recent decades: people's increasingly frustrated and angry sense of the government encroaching on their lives.

By no means does the right wing have a monopoly on the sentiment. But every activist or group Huret writes about is politically conservative, as was also the case in Isaac William Martin's book Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent, published last year by Oxford University Press and discussed in this column.

Neither author mentions Edmund Wilson’s book The Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest (1962), which criticizes “the Infernal Revenue Service,” as some resisters call it, in terms more intelligent and less hysterical than, say, this piece of anti-government rhetoric from 1968 that Hulet quotes: “The federal bureaucracy has among its principle objectives the destruction of the family, the elimination of the middle class, and the creation of a vast mass of people who can be completely controlled.”

Wilson wrote his book after a prolonged conflict with the IRS, which had eventually noticed the author’s failure to file any returns between 1946 and 1955. Wilson explained that as a literary critic he didn’t make much money and figured he was under the threshold of taxable income. Plus which, his lawyer had died. The agents handling his case were unsympathetic, and Wilson’s encounter with the bureaucracy turned into a Kafkaesque farce that eventually drove him from excuses to rationalization: his growing hostility led Wilson to decide that failure to pay taxes was almost an ethical obligation, given that the military-industrial complex was out of control. He vowed never again to earn enough to owe another cent in income tax, though he and the IRS continued to fight it out until his death 10 years later.

I don’t offer this as an example of tax resistance at its most lucid and well-argued. On the contrary, there’s a reason it’s one of Wilson’s few books that fell out of print and stayed there.

But it is a lesson in how the confluence of personal financial strains and the cold indifference of a bureaucratic juggernaut can animate fiery statements about political principle. It’s something to consider, along with the implications of Socrates's definition of man as a featherless biped.

 

 

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