Posted by: mutantpoodle | April 15, 2010

Tax Day and the Roots of Anti-Tax Sentiment

It was two years ago, also around Tax Day, that I first linked to this piece by Rust Belt Intellectual on taxes (he thinks they’re too low) and the historical roots of anti-tax sentiment in the United States. (Hint: it’s not from the latte-sipping new Englanders.)

On the latter, he looks at some outside scholarship on the issue. I suggest you click through to his post; if you’re not inclined, I’ll quote at length:

Berkeley historian Robin Einhorn has written a brilliant study of the origins of Americans’ aversion to high taxes. I recommend reading her book, American Taxation, American Slavery. Here are some of her insights:

Americans are right to think that our antitax and antigovernment attitudes have deep historical roots. Our mistake is to dig for them in Boston. We should be digging in Virginia and South Carolina rather than in Massachusetts or Pennsylvania, because the origins of these attitudes have more to do with the history of American slavery than the history of American freedom. They have more to do with protections for entrenched wealth than with promises of opportunity, and more to do with the demands of privileged elites than with the strivings of the common man. Instead of reflecting a heritage that valued liberty over all other concerns, they are part of the poisonous legacy we have inherited from the slaveholders who forged much of our political tradition.

America’s anti-tax tradition, she argues, is one of slavery’s many strange fruits.

[S]laveholders had different priorities than other people—and special reasons to be afraid of taxes. Slaveholders had little need for transportation improvements (since their land was often already on good transportation links such as rivers) and hardly any interest in an educated workforce (it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write because slaveholders thought education would help African Americans seize their freedom). Slaveholders wanted the military, not least to promote the westward expansion of slavery, and they also wanted local police forces (“slave patrols”) to protect them against rebellious slaves. They wanted all manner of government action to protect slavery, while they tended to dismiss everything else as wasteful government spending.

Her sobering conclusion:

The irony is that the slaveholding elites of early American history have come down to us as the champions of liberty and democracy. In a political campaign whose audacity we can only admire, charismatic slaveholders persuaded many of their contemporaries—and then generations of historians looking back—that the elites who threatened American liberty in their era were the nonslaveholders! Today, this brand of politics looks eerily familiar. We have experience with political parties that attack “elites” in order to rally voters behind policies that benefit elites. This is what the slaveholders did in early American history, and they did it very well. Expansions of slavery became expansions of “liberty,” constitutional limitations on democratic self-government became defenses of “equal rights,” and the power of slaveholding elites became the power of the “common man.” In the topsy-turvy political world we have inherited from the age of slavery, the power of the majority to decide how to tax became the power of an alien “government” to oppress “the people.”

If we throw off the yoke of slavery, we might recover the lost promise of the Boston Tea Party: that taxation and liberty are fundamentally compatible.

All true, and on an almost as important matter, I have embedded the Life of Brian scene above that was nabbed by the copyright police on RBI’s original post, and inspired the post’s title. Just staying one step ahead of the law.

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