I'm Mad as Hell, by Howard Jarvis, New York: Times Books, 1980, 310 pp., $9.95.
The Continuing Tax Rebellion, by Martin A. Larson, Old Greenwich, Conn.: Devin-Adair Co., 1980, 273 pp., $5.95 paper.
There must be something about the anti-tax movement that attracts Old Curmudgeons. And that "something" is probably the fact that, while bureaucrats are paid full-time to extend the size and power of the government, most of us have the problem of having to work for a living. That leaves either the very young, the full-time paid activist, or the retired to carry the banner. Since youths don't know what it means to pay outrageous taxes and thus aren't generally interested, and full-time activists are hard to find and pay, that leaves the battlefield largely to Certified Old Curmudgeons (COCs) like Howard Jarvis and Martin Larson.
Howard Jarvis, of course, is now the best-known tax-fighter in the country…probably in the world. Although I've got to admit to having mixed feelings about the old guy—his abrasive personality and words have often been given more press coverage than the substantive issues, and the word in California is that he's often hard as hell to work with—nevertheless, we've got to hand it to him: he's an authentic and original American Hero for what he's done. And the sorrowful loss in June 1980 of Proposition 9 in California, which would have slashed the state income tax by half, doesn't take a thing away from him as prime mover in the titanic Proposition 13 struggle.
Well, now he's come out with the story of that struggle. I'm Mad as Hell recounts those 15 lonely years when no one would listen and gives old Howard a chance to "tell it like it is," which is to say, "tell it the way he sees it." Although I'd criticize Jarvis for his sniping in the book at Paul Gann, with whom he's fallen out, and for not giving more specific individual credit for the Prop. 13 victory to the many courageous leaders across California who fought the battle, what the hell, it's His Story, and he deserves to be able to tell it His Way.
Besides, the book is surprisingly well-written (with a ghostwriter coauthor) and fun to read. Jarvis wouldn't think of pulling any rhetorical punches, with the result that we're treated to lines like these:
• On Leo McCarthy, Speaker of the California Assembly and the most vicious antagonist taxpayers have in the state: "He was generally considered to be the most powerful politician in California, except for the governor. And McCarthy was not too bright."
• On the opponents of Prop. 13: "In plain English, what we were trying to accomplish was to put a fence between the hogs and the swill bucket. Virtually all of the howlers against Proposition 13 had their noses buried deeply in the public trough."
• On Tip O'Neill, speaker of the US House of Representatives: "As far as I'm concerned, Tip O'Neill…is a run-of-the-mill political hack who has few scruples and not much of anything else to qualify him to hold power."
It's great. In addition, the book is a valuable source for lining up a Who's Who of the tax rebellion: exactly who's lining up for it, and who's trying to torpedo it. For instance, in the Prop. 13 battle, big business almost totally opposed it and lined the coffers with millions in donations to help defeat the tax measure. The offenders included the Bank of America, Atlantic Richfield, Standard Oil of California, the Southern Pacific Railroad, and a number of others. The media? Jarvis points out that all the major media and most of the smaller newspapers in the state opposed Proposition 13—with the sole major-media exception of the lonely and courageous Los Angeles Herald Examiner.
And yet…and yet the people won! What a victory. What a story. Jarvis gives us his prescription for what should be done for the future and waves his tax rebel's flag through the book. Long may it wave, too.
Now Martin Larson, on the other hand, offers up a distinctly different set of tax-rebellion strategies than does Jarvis. Larson, who at 83 makes the 76-year-old Jarvis look something of a youngster, is a long-time nemesis of the IRS, the author of 25 books, and a fighter for the Constitution of the United States. In his new book, The Continuing Tax Rebellion—subtitled, What Millions of Americans Are Doing to Restore Constitutional Government—the opening sentence says it all: "The middle-class tax-rebellion taking a multiplicity of forms is now sweeping the nation because our national government has become a vast system of extortion and bribery, discrimination and oppression, regimentation and extravagance, which are without parallel in recorded history."
With that setting the tone, Larson—who has written about a dozen books blasting the IRS and federal bureaucracies—gets down to cannonading these bêtes noires once again. But it's all nothing new: this courageous old man, a gut fighter of the old school, is continuing a 30-year rampage against these famous enemies of every libertarian. In his book, Larson tells about all kinds of clashes between the forces of Good and Evil, titling his chapters "The Pioneers" (giants like Vivien Kellems and Arthur J. Porth), "The Crusaders" (Marvin Cooley and others), "Tales of Courage and Victory" (including the incredible Phil and Sue Long, who cracked the IRS wide open using the Freedom of Information Act), "Profiles of Freedom Fighters" (including the late and well-loved Karl Bray), and others.
Still other parts of the book deal with Larson's own ongoing battles with the IRS—no small saga in itself—and gives suggested tactics on how to proceed with the struggle so as to cause the maximum amount of fear and loathing among the enemy. I wouldn't recommend his techniques to anyone not prepared to weather considerable physical and emotional abuse, but that's because Larson and others of his sturdy type tend to read the Constitution for what it manifestly says. And that doesn't work.
Yet even so! What a crew these 20th-century individualists make! Many of them went to prison. Even more of them made television and radio appearances, all the while being threatened with jail, bankruptcy, harassment, fines—the whole panoply of IRS threats and abuse. Brave people. Maybe we'll even someday be able to look upon them as the Revolutionary Vanguard, the Galvanizers of the Masses…what the hell—the Suburban Middle-Class Workers' Guerrilla Strike Force! Onward! To the Tax Rebellion! To victory!
Timothy Condon writes REASON's Taxes column and is a tax specialist with the Condon & Vollrath Tax Service in Tampa, Florida.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Tax Guerillas".