Taxpayers in Revolt: Tax Resistance During the Great Depression, by David T. Beito, Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 220 pages, $29.95.
The "tax revolt" that helped propel Ronald Reagan to the White House is said to be on the wane. Despite the electoral appeal of George Bush's "no new taxes" pledge, the view of the established opinion brokers is that taxpayers are becoming more "realistic" about the need for increased tax revenues to support basic government services.
A good way to get at the question of whether the tax revolt movement can be sustained is to look at a tax revolt movement from an earlier age and see what lessons its passing teaches. David Beito has performed just such a valuable analysis in Taxpayers in Revolt. Beito looks at the widespread tax resistance that began spontaneously at the outset of the Great Depression. Like the circumstances surrounding the tax revolt launched by California's Proposition 13, the tax burden at the end of the 1920s was rising rapidly as the economic crisis worsened.
The tax burden doubled from 1929 to 1932, and the inability of Americans to afford this increase during a time of falling income quickly turned into an organized resistance. Taxpayers' leagues and associations sprang up by the hundreds across the nation.
The organized tax resistance quickly went on the offensive, attacking local government waste and inefficiency. Beito argues that the tax revolt was not an expression of mere self-interest, but that the Depression was a catalyst for "tax consciousness"—motivating taxpayers to look more critically at how "a bureaucracy they could once afford to ignore spent their tax dollar." What they found in many cases were local governments that had been living beyond their means even before the onset of the economic crisis.
Most instructive is Beito's account of how government responded to tax resistance. Local government officials often proposed closing schools and cutting essential services such as police and fire protection first, as a means of shocking taxpayers into payment. Eventually a "National Pay Your Taxes Campaign" (NPYTC) emerged.
Many of the ideological justifications for big government today got a tryout during this period. The NPYTC stated explicitly what had hitherto been largely buried in the manifestos of the Progressive movement: that government administration is beneficent, and its expansion a thing much to be heralded. When NBC changed the time slot of the NPYTC's radio propaganda program called "You and Your Government," these same advocates of beneficent government saw no irony in threatening to nationalize the radio industry.
In the end, Beito explains, the NPYTC proved effective in isolating the tax resistance "beyond the bounds of respectable discourse." This task was relatively easy, says Beito, because the tax resistance did not fully utilize the potential arguments available. Although the tax resisters made some suggestions about privatization and reducing government expenditures, the resistance was unable to sustain the argument with well-researched, sophisticated material.
As with most good histories, Taxpayers in Revolt carries important messages for the present. Today's effort to reduce the size and scope of government is clearly much better supplied with thorough arguments on its behalf. But the enemy has become more sophisticated as well, obscuring political controversies with the rhetoric of "process." Beito's book may help spark the political and intellectual realignment necessary to reform our government within its proper limits.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Brief Review".