Movements of the well-to-do

October 22, 2013

In an article for his column at Inside Higher Ed, Scott McLemee reviews a new book that looks at movements to fight the progressive income tax in the U.S.

THIS MONTH is the largely overlooked and completely uncelebrated centennial of the passage of the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That's the one establishing a progressive, national income tax. And ever since, people have been writing letters to the editor to remind everyone that a progressive income tax was one of the demands of The Communist Manifesto. (For full effect, that last sentence should have been written in all caps and ended with at least three exclamation points.)

The figures whose story Isaac William Martin tells in Rich People's Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent (Oxford University Press) often made the same point. And they were quite correct, though I must fault them for neglecting to mention that the Manifesto included an equally sinister call for free public education and the end of child labor. Maybe people would complain less about the cost of health care if their kids had gainful employment in a coal mine.

But not to quibble. Significant opposition to the 16th Amendment began not when it went into effect, but a few years later, under the double impact of the First World War (which increased government expenditures) and Prohibition (which dried up a source of tax revenue). Martin, a professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego, identifies five waves of protest, expressed through calls to repeal the amendment, to reduce the debt burden of the wealthiest taxpayers, or to fix a maximum rate of 25 percent.

Soldiers of the modern-day anti-tax movement
Soldiers of the modern-day anti-tax movement (Sage Ross)

The wonky particulars count for less than the passion of the movement. It was, and is, a crusade, for which a tract such as Frank Chodorov's The Income Tax: The Root of All Evil (1954) seemed not the least bit overwrought. Most of the leaders and organizations have fallen into obscurity. (Chodorov may be an exception given his place in the early history of The National Review.) But they established a tradition of social protest that, though once marginal, now effectively dominates a major political party.

CALLING IT a tradition of social protest seems counterintuitive, if not provocative, and Martin is surely looking for trouble with his title's allusion to Poor People's Movements by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, which has become something like the Necronomicon of Tea Party mythology.

But Rich People's Movements has a serious argument: Martin contends that the waves of anti-tax activism over the past century have borrowed heavily from the tactics and rhetorical legacies of the Populist and women's movements, among others. They have been vocal and visible in ways that extremely wealthy people tend not to need to be. Simply at the level of cost and benefit, campaigning for the abolition of income tax would rarely be in the interest of a billionaire.

It is quieter, easier and more effective to use various loopholes, or to promote legislation amounting to custom-made loopholes. (If a member of Congress fails to cooperate, just buy another one.) By contrast, the American Taxpayers League of the 1920s had organizers who roamed around creating clubs for bankers and small businessmen--the Wobblies of the bosses, so to speak.

Rightward-leaning businesswomen and society ladies who joined the Liberty Belles in the 1950s violated the law by refusing to collect and pay the withholding taxes for their employees and servants. Some of them had learned the principles of civil disobedience from the suffragists of an earlier generation.

And in one of numerous "how the hell did nobody else remember this?" moments the book inspires, the reader learns of the California T (for "tax") Parties of 1962, which "drew hundreds of people together to hear inspiring speeches, watch educational films, and honor [fellow anti-tax] activists." They also sang a rousing anthem, with the lines, "You and I cannot relax/We must repeal the income tax!"

Recruits for these groups tended to come not from the wealthy and powerful, but from people in a slightly lower tax bracket--the merely well-off and comfortable, to put it one way. Martin shows convincingly that the movement's periods of growth were triggered by a policy threat--i.e., when "the loss of economic or personal security is attributable to a real or anticipated change in public policy." Then blame for the dread or panic can be focused on specific policy makers, creating an opportunity for political entrepreneurs to organize a movement.

THE READER will no doubt be able to think of various moments in American politics over the past five years that seem to fit Martin's generalization. So rather than belabor the point, I want to raise some questions that have come to mind about Rich People's Movements. It is, by the way, a very lucid book, written as if the author expected it to have readers. Imagine that.

One thing conspicuously missing from the book is the phenomenon of tax resistance of the kind that gets in the news every so often--say, during a standoff with some guy with a bunker full of automatic weapons, snakebite kits and 100 pounds of beef jerky, plus a suitable quantity of Gatorade, as per his interpretation of the Revelation of Saint John.

The groups Martin chronicles tried to craft legislation that would alter or abolish the income tax. The survivalist or paramilitary right tends to be equally obsessed with the other unholy monstrosity created in 1913, the Federal Reserve system, and longs for a much more dramatic reckoning than repeal of the 16th Amendment.

By e-mail, I asked Martin if he'd given any thought to the extremely hardcore anti-tax people. He explained that he had defined his project "to encompass movements that make explicit policy demands, within the framework of American political institutions, to change the income tax or the estate tax in ways that would categorically benefit the rich," while the Posse Comitatus or militia groups "deny that the income tax was ever legitimately enacted in the first place, and often deny the legitimacy of the federal government altogether."

The one significant point of possible similarity between the groups Martin studied and what he calls "a revolutionary movement that denies the legitimacy of the U.S. government altogether, or a movement that embraces the tax strike as a revolutionary or separatist tactic" might be the role of policy threats in spurring them to action. The rise of the militia groups in the mid-1990s coincided with the Clinton tax increases and health care efforts, for example.

But the more absolutist political entrepreneurs did not focus on alliance-building and policy-crafting that are necessary when activists "orient themselves towards making concrete policy proposals," as the activists treated in Rich People's Movements did. Then again, alliance-building presupposes a certain level of mutual trust, which I take it is in fairly short supply on the paramilitary right, so target practice would probably count as the more appropriate use of resources.

I also wondered what difference being a sociologist, rather than a political scientist or a historian, might have made to Martin's project. The borders between disciplines don't always correspond to distinctions among the objects of study, of course. But it seemed worth asking. He answered:

Sociology gave me the questions. Where do these social movements come from? Why, in this instance, unlike almost every other movement described in the literature, are people explicitly protesting on behalf of others who are even richer than themselves? Who are these people, anyway?

I think it is my background in sociology that primed me to pay attention to protest movements (including grassroots organizing, civil disobedience, and so forth) as interesting phenomena in their own right. I think it is unlikely that most political scientists or political historians would have lavished as much attention on the recreating the internal dynamics of obscure movement organizations--not because of any theoretical blinders, but simply because they are not primed by their disciplines to be as interested in those organizations, until they happen to intersect with the doings of, say, Congress.

Speaking of Congress, it's striking how closely the rhetoric of 20th-century anti-income tax movements corresponds to that of today's Teapublicans. Only the names have been changed to update the guilty. No doubt you'd get wild applause at an American Taxpayers Union meeting in the 1920s by denouncing Calvin Coolidge for his use of the 16th Amendment to impose Bolshevism.

But the events of the past few weeks have clearly strained relations between business-friendly politicos of the pragmatic sort and today's descendants of the League and the Liberty Belles. "The alliance was always shaky," Martin said when I asked about recent developments. "Movement people always made the establishment business conservatives a little nervous."

Still, crusaders against the income tax had their uses, if only by making the policies of establishment business conservatives appear centrist by contrast. The latter eventually began directing funds to the "grassroots" groups, given their value as shock troops.

"But [the politicos] never controlled the grassroots organizations on their right flank," Martin said. He continued:

Those waxed and waned according to their own dynamics; and part of the reason those organizations sometimes sounded crazy was that they were staffed by true believers whose ideas, at least sometimes and in some respects, really were extreme. And when those organizations and their true believers took over some critical parts of the Republican Party, it paved the way for a clash between pragmatists who control the money and the true believers who control the mailing lists.

Here, the opposition between "money" and "mailing list" ought not to be construed too literally. If you have one, you can usually get the other. What the true believers really have, besides fervor, is what Martin calls tradition: "a name for practices that persist across generations because they are passed down by learning and teaching...I don't think the right differs in this respect from the left, and I think this sort of intergenerational transmission of practical habits and ways of organizing is also true in other movements."

Tradition, so understood, is the slow work of building forces; it is the education that takes the form of action, and vice versa.

"Today's organizers learned how to recruit members from someone who learned it from someone and so on," Martin told me, "and you could follow that thread of teaching and learning all the way back for at least a century, even if you'd find that the practices changed and evolved a bit along the way, and even if no one remembers more than one or two generations back."

Rich People's Movements is a valuable study of how that happens, and it deserves study--even, perhaps especially, by people who do not think of the 16th Amendment as the root of all evil.

First published at Inside Higher Ed.

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