Our Minds Have Been Warped by Decades of Anti-Tax Propaganda

by Neil H. Buchanan

As I tried to come up with a title for this column, one of my first ideas was: "Is Anyone Really For Taxes?"  That title makes its own kind of sense, because it is a way of acknowledging that even people like me who defend the basic contours of the US tax system -- and who argue that it should be more progressive and should collect more revenues -- do so somewhat reluctantly.  "Sure, it would be nice to live in a world in which taxes were unnecessary," we might say, carefully using the subjunctive form, "but given that such worlds cannot exist, we can be in favor of taxes without wanting to impose unnecessarily high taxes."

That such an argument is true does not change the reality that it is a disastrously defensive position, all but begging the mindless anti-tax people to respond, "See, even the libs hate taxes deep down!"  But the fact is that everyone should love taxes, and we should be clear about what that means.  People who are not on the hard right (that is, not only progressives or even merely the center-left, but everyone who is not effectively an anarchist or a nihilist) are so accustomed to deflecting the cheap tax-cut propaganda and pandering by Republicans, attempting to play to people's supposedly anti-government instincts, that the American political conversation is all but incapable of having a sensible conversation about taxes or even about basic concepts of politics.

These thoughts flow inevitably from my new Verdict column (the first piece on that platform that I have written since June, after an unplanned summer hiatus), published yesterday: "The Declaration of Independence Was a Call for More Government and More Taxes—And That’s Still an Important Lesson for Us Today."  In that column I explain that, from the very beginnings of the United States, even the tiny sliver of the human beings who were allowed to have a say in the governance of this country were pro-government and pro-taxes.  Why do we imagine (or perhaps pretend) otherwise?

The short answer, of course, is that thought-free populism has a track record of success.  Politicians who seek power for power's sake do not care what they say or do to gain and hold power, and they have plenty of examples to copy of people who made the world worse in order to gain personal success.  I honestly believe that every politician who has ever said, "I don't have a racist bone in my body," is in fact a racist.  Nonetheless, even a non-racist knows that playing the race card works, far too often.  And he also knows that anti-tax populism works.

So if a politician is willing to demagogue, say, mass incarceration and targeting minority communities -- or, more recently, to demagogue public health measures during a global pandemic -- why would he not be perfectly happy lying about taxes, too?  One need not even acknowledge the overlap between anti-tax policies and racist outcomes to think, "Hey, I bet the rubes will love it if I talk about pointy-headed bureaucrats taking your money."  Again, the racist-adjacent aspects of this are nearly impossible to ignore.  After all, the epithet "pointy-headed bureaucrats" came from George Wallace, the racist Alabama governor and presidential candidate whose hateful populism ended up being adopted by the Republican Party, which is where his fellow Southern Democrats moved over the next generation.

Still, let us try to stay on point, which is to say that there are obvious and powerful reasons for someone who is amoral -- as opposed to hatefully immoral -- to adopt an anti-government and anti-tax political persona.  It is easy.  It often works.  It puts one's opponent in the position into which I put myself in the first paragraph of this column: I'm not saying I like taxes, exactly, but ya know, uh, let's think about this reasonably.

Again, however, that is not what the founding generation of propertied White men (many of whom owned other human beings, but I digress again) thought about taxes.  In my Verdict column, I quote from an 1851 column that Harper's republished recently, titled simply "The Boston Tea Party."  The author of that piece was a certain Benson J. Lossing, who, I just discovered upon googling his name, was "a prolific and popular American historian" who also "was a charter trustee of Vassar College," which happens to be my alma mater.  (Go Brewers!)

Lossing was writing from roughly the same historical distance to the American Revolution that we are today from the end of World War II and the McCarthy era.  That is, he was not alive at the time of the events that he discussed, but he had certainly grown up around people who had been there, and in 1851 there were still people alive who had first-hand knowledge of what the War of Independence was all about.

As I discuss in my column, Lossing's surprising historical observation is that taxes played a vanishingly small part in the drama over our break from England.  The various taxes imposed by the crown were "almost nominal" -- that is, so minor as to be barely noticeable.  It would be as if we went to war today over, say, the excise tax on vehicle tires.  The role that tax controversies played was not about taxes at all, because the complaint was about process, not result.

I wrote many years ago that the Declaration of Independence was a pro-government document, but when I wrote yesterday's Verdict column, it occurred to me simply to count the number of items in what amounts to the revolutionaries' public indictment of King George III.  Out of 27 offenses (only one of which was openly bigoted, which in a way counts as a win, I suppose), only one had anything to do with taxes.  And if taxes had been front-of-mind, it seems likely that Thomas Jefferson would have placed the complaint at the beginning or the end of the list, not buried in the middle at #17.

Again, the founding generation was not anti-tax.  I did not mention it on Verdict, but historians have also noted that the Boston Tea Party was not a rebellion against the imposition of a tax at all.  As History.com points out, "The 'tea partiers' were not protesting a tax hike, but a corporate tax break."  In fact,

[t]he protestors who caffeinated Boston Harbor were railing against the Tea Act, which the British government enacted in the spring of 1773. Rather than inflicting new levies, however, the legislation actually reduced the total tax on tea sold in America by the East India Company and would have allowed colonists to purchase tea at half the price paid by British consumers. The Tea Act, though, did leave in place the hated three-pence-per-pound duty enacted by the Townshend Acts in 1767, and it irked colonists as another instance of taxation legislation being passed by Parliament without their input and consent. The principle of self-governance, not the burden of higher taxes, motivated political opposition to the Tea Act.

Despite all of that, people who want to use the power of the government to collect and use revenues for the public good are now derided as "tax-and-spend socialists."  There is only one famous pro-tax statement on record, which is Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's acknowledgement that "taxes are what pay for a civilized society" (a sentiment that Holmes in fact expressed more than once, in different venues including court cases and private correspondence).  That truth, unsurprisingly, is etched over the entrance to the IRS headquarters in Washington.  Just as unsurprisingly, anti-tax types mock the very idea that taxes could ever be a good thing.

In yesterday's column, I noted that the famous slogan thought to have originated with the American colonists -- "Taxation without representation is tyranny" -- was coined more than a hundred years earlier.  (Republicans are, of course, more than willing to tolerate taxation without representation for the citizens of Washington, D.C. -- and there truly is no way to ignore the racism in that.)  Similarly, Holmes's quote is also not original to him, with the governments of Vermont, Ohio, and New York at various points in the mid-1800's having published documents with strikingly similar words.

But the most interesting version of the idea came from the Supervisor of Schools for the State of Georgia, who reportedly argued argued in 1916: "Taxation for schools is American and democratic. 'Taxation is the price of civilization.' 'Only the savage pays no taxes.'"

Now imagine any Democrat today trying to argue in favor of taxes.  Yes, we might occasionally see a tepid, defensive statement (along the lines that I described above) that amounts to a double-negative: Taxes are not terrible, at least not always ... right?  Even that, however, would have the Republicans salivating and Fox News on the offensive (even more than usual) for months if not years going forward.

What changed?  After all, every time there is a major catastrophe, we turn to government to clean it up and help the victims.  Every time there is a chronic problem, we turn to government to solve it.  Even people who claim to be in favor of "the free market" (which I place in scare-quotes to emphasize that there can be no such thing as a market economy that is not a creation of government) see problems and want the government to spend money to solve them, such as the people who are now arguing for subsidies for nuclear power.

One key moment in recent history that caused politicians to become fervid anti-tax liars was the 1984 presidential election.  Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax cuts -- even when cut back by his less-famous (but quite large) 1982 tax increase -- had caused an unprecedented increase in the federal deficit.  Even "deficit doves" thought that those deficits were too large, especially because they were incurred not to invest in the future but as part of a warmongering and regressive set of fiscal policies.  Everyone, it seemed, agreed that taxes would have to rise (because surely no one was going to argue against the military buildup).

Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale decided to call Reagan on his insanity, famously saying during his acceptance speech at his party's national convention: "Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did."  Again, Reagan had already raised taxes, and he would go on to do so again.  Mondale was right -- both that Reagan would raise taxes and that Reagan would not admit it.  Republicans learned from Reagan that they could ignore reality.

But Reagan did raise taxes, whereas today's Republicans will not even countenance that idea.  During the Obama years, Republicans rejected the idea of having the government cut ten dollars of spending for every one dollar of tax increases -- 10 to 1! -- because they simply refused to increase taxes at all.  They have bought into the idea that it is never a good idea to collect more money, even when it could be used to fix drinking-water problems in a state's capital city.  (Oh shoot!  There's that racism thing again.)

That Republicans went off the deep end about taxes, however, did not inevitably mean that everyone else would do the same.  And that is why the Mondale story is so tragic/silly.  The lesson that non-Republicans, including apparently every Democratic candidate for every office in the land, is simple: Mondale said that he would increase taxes, and he lost (badly).

Note that Mondale did not say that he would increase taxes.  Again, he said that he, like Reagan, would increase taxes.  More importantly, this conventional wisdom about Mondale is the worst kind of post hoc fallacy: He said that he would increase taxes, and then he lost an election.  That conclusion is supposedly strengthened by the epic nature of his defeat, with Reagan taking 49 states in the Electoral College, with a bigger margin of victory than FDR had in all but one of his elections.

But for heaven's sake, how is that the lesson of 1984?  We had an incumbent president whose predecessor had put in place a Federal Reserve chairperson who deliberately strangled the economy in 1980-82 (all but guaranteeing Reagan's election in the first place), who then allowed the economy to expand in the lead-up to the 1984 election and beyond.  This was the "political business cycle" par excellence.  The so-called "morning in America" that Reagan's admirers remember was nothing more than a steep recovery from a deep, deliberate recession, the net result of which was a decade of mediocre (and increasingly unequal) growth that paled in comparison not only to the Clinton years but even to Jimmy Carter's single term in office.

Would Mondale have won, had he not endorsed a tax increase?  Obviously not.  Would he have lost less badly?  Perhaps, but why would we assume so?  Maybe his strategy actually worked, with some people giving him the credit that he deserved for being honest.  He received forty percent of the votes, not zero.

Democrats have, in fact, increased taxes since 1984 (and so did the first George Bush).  Bill Clinton did it, and Republicans predicted disaster.  Barack Obama did it, and Republicans predicted disaster.  Governor Jerry Brown did it in California, and Republicans predicted disaster.  There is a pattern here.

Even so, when Bernie Sanders talks about European-level taxing and spending, Democrats run for cover.  The "shrewd" types like Pete Buttigieg (who might have had a shot at becoming president one day, if only American democracy were not doomed) continue to feed the anti-tax presumptions that they have unthinkingly accepted.  At most, everything has to begin with a disclaimer: "I'm not saying I like taxes, but ... ."

This cowardice has consequences.  We are not living in a world that was improved by decades of tax cutting and disinvestment.  Our public infrastructure is a disaster.  The only thing Republicans want to do about schools is to make them un-woke, not caring that teachers are underpaid and live in mortal danger while doing their jobs.  The middle class has been shrinking ever since Reagan took office, and the ultra-rich have been the only ones doing well in the Covid era (and before).

If the lesson from Mondale's defeat was, "He said he'd raise taxes and then lost," why is the lesson from the ensuing thirty-eight years not, "Playing defense on taxes has made everything worse"?  No matter the reason, there seems to be no turning back now.  And people will continue to suffer because of these warped presumptions.