Over the past 150 years, various groups of Americans have resisted taxation as a form of protest, acting out their anger towards the state over the issues of who should be taxed, how much, and why. In American Tax Resisters, historian Romain Huret highlights the moral, social, and political dimensions to this strain of dissent, which has been integral in the shaping of American political economy. On this American tax day, we asked Huret a few questions about those who’ve manifested their discontent with government by refusing to support its fiscal demands.
The main argument of my book is that they share a common distrust of federal progressive taxation. They believe that the main tenets of progressivity—“sacrifice” on the part of rich taxpayers, graduated tax rates, making tax returns public—threatened both American democracy and economy. They saw tax resistance as a way to protect their families, businesses, and communities. In terms of rhetoric, since the Civil War resisters have invoked both Constitutional and historical arguments against taxation. Each generation of resisters has reinvented its own language and actions, but there is a striking continuity between the businessmen who created Anti-Income Tax associations after the Civil War and today’s Tea Partiers.
Q. How have resistance movements responded to changes in tax policy over the past 150 years?
Until the early twentieth century, tax resisters hoped to abolish all internal taxes, especially progressive ones. After the Sixteenth Amendment (1913), which was a major defeat for them, all but the most radical tried to limit, rather than eliminate, tax rates and tax transfers. The New Deal and Keynesian policy made resistance very difficult after World War II, when even big corporations accepted progressive taxation. Then the movement was reinvigorated by conservative middle-class activists in the suburbs in the 1950s. Women played a major role and denounced federal taxation as a dangerous evil that undermined family values. Pamphlets, newsletters and books circulated among conservatives and shaped a distinctive subculture that paved the way to the tax revolts of the 1970s. That new brand of resistance flourished in the 1980s and is still vigorous today.
Q. How have the tax resistance movements of the past influenced contemporary movements?
Contemporary resisters know the history of tax resistance, and see themselves as part of a long and proud American tradition. In the 1960s and 1970s, you already had T-Parties meetings, tapping into the memory of the Founders, even though their audience was small. Today’s Tea Party is a very interesting case of intergenerational social movement, even though tax rates have largely decreased since the 1970s.