Viewpoint: The Tax Revolt


These are exhilarating times. At long last, the mass of the public has expressed its total disgust with crippling taxation—so much so that the entire nation and all the media are buzzing about the nationwide tax revolt. The sparkplug of this revolt was, of course, the June 6 primary in California, when a veritable outpouring of voters swept Proposition 13 to victory.

At first it seemed that Prop. 13 didn't have a chance. How could it? Arrayed against it was the entire Establishment in the state—led, as usual in these matters, by the government bureaucracy and public employee unions, conspicuously the teachers. They used the old tactic that had proved so successful in the past, in California and in other states: an hysterical scare campaign. Day after day, using all the media (virtually every newspaper in the state, headed by the powerful Los Angeles Times, bitterly opposed Prop. 13), the message was pounded home: government would disappear the day after June 6 if Prop. 13 passed. The schools would all close, the library books would disappear in a puff of smoke, police and fire departments would have to be abolished. Organized teachers and bureaucrats would surely vote en masse against Jarvis-Gann, and any favorable opinion would be neutralized by the scare tactics and the prestige of its opponents. Big business, by the way, generally strongly opposed Prop. 13, led by the municipal bond brokers, who worried about their own and their clients' investments, and by the Bank of America, itself hip-deep in municipal bonds.

Against this powerful array, what could the Jarvis-Gann forces muster? Their leader, Howard Jarvis, a crusty veteran opponent of taxes, was ridiculed systematically by the media as a nut and a crank. The Jarvis forces had little organization and less money. The Libertarian Party and its impressive gubernatorial candidate, Ed Clark, strongly backed Prop. 13, and a few economists, led by Milton Friedman, did so too, but this was surely a drop in the bucket. And many of the supporters seemed (and still seem) apologetic, joining the opponents in whining about the "meat axe" approach of Prop. 13 and of its "irresponsibility." With that kind of a lineup, how could Prop. 13 fail to lose, and lose big?

And yet, as the smear campaign against Prop. 13 reached a crescendo in the three weeks before the primary, a strange and wondrous thing happened. The more the statist Establishment whined and shouted about a loss of vital government services, about recession and unemployment, the more the public swung and swung heavily in favor of Jarvis-Gann. For once, and at long last, the old propaganda not only failed to work: it proved counterproductive.

There are two possible reasons for this. Perhaps the public simply didn't believe the politicians any more. Government had simply lost its credibility. As one radio spot for Prop. 13 pointed out: "You don't believe the politicians' promises; why believe their threats?" But there's another interpretation: the public has stopped salaaming before government's "services" and wants them cut, even by the legendary meat axe. The people want to lay an axe to the root of government.

There were straws in the wind everywhere in those last weeks. Policemen, government employees, even teachers broke ranks and voted for Prop. 13—in particular those with seniority who had no real fear of losing their jobs. For after all, they all owned houses, and they were all hit by the rising property taxes—taxes which rose even as the voters were deciding what to do. In Marxist parlance, the "ruling class" (in this case, government officialdom) was split by the tax revolt. Even liberals, always pro-tax and pro-government spending, began to voice support for Prop. 13. A staff writer for the liberal New West denounced parasitic government officials and announced her firm support for Jarvis-Gann. And even Richard Reeves, prestigious liberal political analyst, wrote in Esquire in favor of Prop. 13 and against rising taxes, and ended by conceding: "Yes, Howard Jarvis is a nut. But in my heart I know he's right."

The final answer of the voters was a two to one victory, a victory which set politicians, bureaucrats and their hangers-on to trembling all across the nation. Politicians of both parties are leaping to join the bandwagon and to express their sincere and fervent desire to cut taxes. In New Jersey, Jeffrey Bell ousted the veteran Senator Clifford Case in the Republican primary, even though Case had been invincible for decades. The main Bell plank: a 30 percent cut in federal income taxes. The New York Daily News immediately took a poll of its readers on taxes, and received an overwhelming response of many thousands of readers calling for drastic cuts in property, sales, and income taxes.

There are other straws in the wind: notably, the fact that almost two-thirds of the US Senate have signed a bill to roll back capital gains taxes from their current 50 percent maximum to their 25 percent top of a few years ago. Also, the fact that the House passed a bill for income tax credits for private school and college tuition, directly going against a veto threat by the Carter administration, which lobbied hard for the traditional liberal plan of government grants and subsidies.

The tax revolt is here, and Howard Jarvis himself promises to go national to lead it. Libertarians and other opponents of crippling taxation must seize the great opportunity which has been presented to us. Above all, the leaders of anti-tax opinion must not trail behind the sentiment of the public. Their function is to lead, not to drag behind and obstruct this great movement. There must be no more talk in our ranks of "meat axe" and "responsibility." Let us indeed take a meat axe to Big Government.

It is particularly important that we insist on a real tax cut (such as Jarvis-Gann), and not fall for the pusillanimous conservative line of simply passing an amendment limiting the future growth of government taxation and spending. The public wants to cut government, not to sit back and limit its future rate of growth. It would be a terrible betrayal of this mighty tax rebellion if we were to succumb to the "responsibility" line of the National Tax Limitation Committee.

Far better than this craven conservatism was the fighting spirit of the cartoonist Edward Sorel, in his cartoon commemorating income tax day this year (appearing in, of all places, the New York Times, April 17). Sorel depicted Uncle Sam as "Godfather Sam," and had the taxpayer kneeling contritely before the Godfather. "Yes, it's true, beloved godfather," says the taxpayer, "I haven't paid my protection money…But you never gave me the protection you promised me last year. You promised me safe streets but I'm still getting mugged. You promised my kids a free education but I have to send them to private schools to make sure they learn something. Your postal service costs too much…Your train service is lousy…Your health service is non-existent…What Am I Getting For My Money?" To which Godfather Sam replies, angrily: "I'll tell ya what yer getting…The privilege of complaining!" When the taxpayer asks, "Is that all?" Godfather fiercely turns him over to the IRS.

Here is a fighting spirit that is not only far truer to the essence of the matter than mealy-mouthed "responsibility": it also works far better in mobilizing the public. When Howard Jarvis whipped up the voters with magnificent clarion calls to throw the bureaucrats and looters out, his Establishment opponents answered (while whipping up scare tactics) by decrying Jarvis's emphasis on emotion. On June 6, the voters of California showed that they realized that the response of such men as Howard Jarvis is precisely appropriate to the gravity of the disease caused by evermore crippling taxation. The victims—the great American public—are rising up angry. And it's high time.