Tax revolts are nothing new in American history. They've been with us since before the American Revolution, when patriots dumped tea into Boston Harbor in 1773. Today, identifiable antitax movements are sweeping through more than 40 states.
The difference between our current rebellion and those past is that it's hard to believe things could have gotten as bad as they have. Today government in the United States annually seizes over 42 percent of the wealth of its people. Each year, we all work into the month of June just to pay taxes. What could possibly have gone so wrong?
Increasing numbers of people are looking at this question, as economic difficulties engulf our society. One particularly cogent analysis is put forth by Prof. James M. Buchanan and Richard E. Wagner in Democracy in Deficit (Academic Press, 1977). The authors postulate an unwritten "fiscal constitution" of the past, which stipulated that politicians and other public officers would act responsibly in the sphere of public finance, not running up huge and repeated budget deficits.
Needless to say, the coming of full-force Keynesian economics to the political sphere forced a breakdown in the tacit agreement. Since Kennedy took office in 1960, only one federal budget has been balanced.
The breakdown has been aided by increasingly militant public employees and droves of special-interest "spending constituencies" concerned only with maximizing their own rewards. Both types of groups have applied tremendous pressure on politicians for more spending. The politicians, eager to find, cultivate, and service new spending constituencies, are only too happy to comply.
Thus, a powerful ratchet effect, born of the freedom from fiscal responsibility and the partnership between venal politicians and increasing spending constituencies, is set in motion. To this day it has not stopped.
Basically, the problem has been caused by three factors: government taxing, government overspending, and government-caused inflation (which aggravates both of the former). To take aim at these problems, the tax movement must unite under a single set of principles.
To be more specific, all who oppose bloated government and the cancers it breeds should be able to support the following principles:
• There must be a strict constitutional limit placed upon the government, preventing the confiscation of more than a set percentage of the people's wealth. Some argue that this should be less than 1 percent, others would allow a higher limit. While the ultimate objective may be no taxation, such a strict limit is a first step and must be agreed upon by a large portion of the tax movement today.
• Along with a constitutional taxing limit, there must be an amendment to force a balanced budget. This will prevent the government from continuing massive spending through deficit financing and will do much to mitigate the causes of inflation.
• Some method must be found—again, probably through a constitutional amendment—to prevent the government from causing inflation. It does this through debasing the currency, which is accomplished by printing what Milton Friedman calls "green pieces of paper" with nothing to back them. Return to a gold standard or some other objective standard of value would remedy the problem.
If tax activists everywhere could agree on such an agenda, the movement would quickly convert from "slashing and crashing about," as big-spending apologist Walter Heller puts it, to aiming a killing thrust at the heart of the issue.
To do this, a nationwide network must be formed. Unfortunately, this goal seems to get farther away by the week, as major taxpayer groups go their own way, refusing to join in a united front.
The National Taxpayers Union—with which I work—is the largest and oldest taxpayer organization in the country. Established in 1969, it is based in Washington, D.C. and has recently set up regional offices in the West, South, Midwest, and Northeast. NTU's focus so far has been on a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget and on cuts in specific governmental appropriations. Now it is moving quickly into local, grassroots organizing.
The conservative, California-based National Tax Limitation Committee is headed by Lewis Uhler, who chaired Ronald Reagan's tax-reduction task force. Their main aim is on state constitutional amendments to limit taxes and spending. Recently they have announced an effort to draft a proposed tax-limitation amendment to the federal constitution.
Finally, Howard Jarvis of Proposition 13 fame has recently launched his National Tax Limitation Movement. His "Freedom for Taxpayers" plan would cut $100 billion from the federal budget, reduce federal taxes by $50 billion, index federal taxes, and provide for retiring the national debt.
Current proposals within the tax movement are thus diverse. With its broad base of support—conservatives, liberals, and libertarians alike—NTU is trying to gather activist taxpayers into a common front. So far, they've been unable to succeed.
The objective is a permanent network of activist taxpayers across the country. A central national organization could work as a clearinghouse of information and assistance, concentrating on battling the Washington special-interest infrastructure.
In the meantime, local groups could unite under statewide umbrella organizations in each state. Local groups, with the assistance, support, and information capability of statewide organizations and the national structure, could effect changes at their local level. Working with the state organizations, all the united groups could then work to slash back government and elect pro-taxpayer politicians on the state level.
Finally, all local groups and statewide organizations could take aim to effect the drastic needed changes on the national level. The result would be taxpayer power that would at least have veto power over any big-spending national candidate who dared rear his or her ugly head.
The organizational structure suggested, one will notice, is the same as with the national labor movement under the AFL-CIO. They have their locals, their state organizations, and their gigantic national structure. So why not us?
It's time the people who do the work, the ones who pay the bills, have their own taxpayers union.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Taxes: Unifying the Tax Movement".