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  Tax Man Inspires Star-Spangled Hatred

By Fred Barbash
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 1999; Page H01

"We'll cut your taxes" is the most repeated campaign promise in the history of American politics. Yet somehow it is still considered visionary, worth a fight. Worth, indeed, a crusade.

Why? It's in our blood.

Historically, Americans have hated taxes, and not merely because we had to pay them. We've hated taxes because we've perceived them to be an infringement on our liberty--and the source of big, powerful and mischievous government. This was true from the beginning.

It wasn't just "taxation without representation" that bothered us so much. It was taxation. Period.

Even before our forefathers won the war of independence, they created a new government, a representative government, but denied it the ability to levy taxes.

In 1787, with the old government flat broke, they created yet another new government. It was plenty representative, but once again severely limited in its taxing powers.

"The purse of the people is the real seat of sensibility," Jefferson said. "Let it be drawn upon largely, and they will then listen to truths which could not excite them through any other organ."

"Sound principles will not justify our taxing the industry of our fellow citizens to accumulate treasure for wars we know not when," he had also said, "and which might not perhaps happen but from temptations offered by that treasure."

In other words, Read Our Lips.

Lip reading isn't so easy, however--now or then.

The first leaders of our nation, after all their ranting about taxes, went out and imposed a tax on liquor. They then seemed surprised that they were met by an armed revolt, called the Whiskey Rebellion, in 1794.

They didn't get it in 1894 either, when the government tried to impose an income tax on Americans for the first time. The Supreme Court, in Pollock vs. Farms' Loan & Trust Co., struck it down.

The income tax is permitted now only because of the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution (1913), a direct reaction to the Pollock decision, and a big mistake, ratified in part because many people thought the tax would be imposed largely on corporations. They thought they were really approving a form of excise tax.


Few nations actually like taxes. But to this day, the United States is unique among peoples in the passion of tax aversion.

In other countries, rebels hole up in mountain hideouts in the name of freedom. In America, they hole up in the name of abolishing the income tax.

Some nations demonize fat-cat billionaire businessmen. America demonizes $35,000-a-year civil servants who work for the Internal Revenue Service.

Has any government agency been so reviled, for so long?

The identification of taxes with fundamental rights conforms with the rest of the Constitution. Of the 10 amendments that make up the Bill of Rights, five include provisions directly related to the protection of property--including money.

Of course, it is now considered crude among enlightened people to hide out in the mountains, or to bash taxes or tax collectors. Most who resent paying taxes say they wouldn't resent it if they were confident their money was being well spent. Recognizing this, politicians have disguised general taxes as dedicated taxes, to be used only for benign purposes, such as funding Social Security, and then proceeded to raise them and raise them and raise them.

We learned fast about the Sixteenth Amendment. By the mid-20th century, everyone seriously contending for high office favored cutting taxes if possible. By the 1980s, public identification of a party with taxation ("tax and spend") was potentially fatal. Walter Mondale was chopped liver the day after he came out in favor of raising taxes during the 1980 campaign; George Bush, Gulf War notwithstanding, took a direct, laser-guided hit when he went back on his promise of "no new taxes."

Fool us once and all that. It was a reminder, to them and us, that as the Supreme Court said in 1814, the power to tax is the power to destroy.

Anti-Tax Sentiment

Taxes have long been perceived by many Americans as an infringement on their liberty.

Boston, 1773

Protesting the British tax on tea, about 50 American patriots disguised as American Indians dumped 342 chests of tea into the harbor in what history calls "The Boston Tea Party."

New York, 1919

After the establishment of the income tax in 1916, taxpayers wait to meet the March 15 deadline, which was extended to April 15 in 1954.

District, 1947

The D.C. Women's Anti-Sales Tax Committee garnered 2,173 signatures opposed to a 2 percent sales tax.

New Jersey, 1984

President Ronald Reagan became the modern torchbearer for the anti-tax-and-spend movement. Here, Reagan pushes for his tax-cut plan, which became law.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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