The federal income tax began in 1913 as an amendment to a tariff bill. To make up reduced tariff receipts, a tiny tax was proposed on large incomes. The bite was only a paltry 1 percent. Few opposed the tax, it didn't seem important.
Nowadays the citizenry groans under the complexity of a 6000-page income tax code, encumbered with myraid exceptions and alternatives. Each of those exceptions and exemptions and alternatives is designed to accomodate the special situation of some group of taxpayers, worthy or unworthy, or to advance some public policy, such as home ownership.
Some critics of the Internal Revenue Service now question whether the taxpayers in modern America have been brought into a serf-like bondage with a finesse so unobtrusive that they may not have noticed it. The Tax Foundation reports that average American now works more than four months of each year to earn enough to pay his taxes; critics point out that the serfs of old Muscovy labored only three months a year for their masters.
For two years before the tax revolt exploded in California with a resounding vote for Proposition 13, we warned that tax resistance was simmering beneath the surface. The public is angry, we wrote, at an income-tax system that has become incomprehensible. The annual ritual of rendering unto Caesar has become so encumbered with regulations that it takes an attorney or an accountant to fill out the average tax form.
The public is also angry at a tax system that discriminates against the middle class. The poor are granted exemptions, and the rich are provided loopholes. The inequities have been covered up by the sheer complexities of the tax laws.
But the middle classes have caught on. Tax-fighter organizations are today moving to rally the pervasive but unorganized anti-tax sentiment around revolutionary measures that would permanently restrict state and federal spending. In a dozen states, taxpayers' movements are in various stages of agitating to change state constitutions to place rigid limits on future spending, often by limiting it to a fixed percentage of private income.
Other state legislatures have passed resolutions petitioning Congress to adopt a constitutional amendment that would abolish deficit spending and put the Treasury on a pay-as-you-go basis. The federal bureaucrats, if apprehensive, doubt that such restriction will ever come to pass. In the conflict between the desire for more public benefits and the resentment at having to pay for them, the Washington consensus is that expanded services will inevitably win out.
The bureaucracy offers an inexhaustible catalougue of services - its metronome-like delivery of millions of benefits checks, its irrigation of thousands of huge agri-farms, its space shuttles, its highways extending to every horizon, its numberless installations all with regularly waxed floors, its medics-at-the-ready with inoculation guns at 10,000 locations.
But many government projects have been generated more to provide jobs for bureaucrats than services for citizens. It is also difficult to measure the performance of the bureaucrats, to determine either excessive cost or concrete achievement. In private business, a standard of competence is furnished inexorably by the profit factor. But the government bureaucracy, with no such automatic arbiter, can always claim that a poor result could be improved upon with a bigger staff and more money.
The bureau chief is rewarded, not for efficiency that cannot be measured, but by the number of people he has under him. The more bodies he can accumulate, the higher his grade. The internal drive toward expansion - and against all "reductions in force" - has been irreversible in the past.
But an angry populace is now determined to cut down the number of services the government performs and the number of bureaucrats who perform them. Any candidate for public office who defies that mood may not survive the next election. That could be grim news for the Democrats, who are associated in the public's mind with government spending.
But Democrats and Republicans alike, meanwhile, are beginning to understand that the tax revolt must be taken seriously and accommodated before it gets out of hand.