One striking thing about Income Tax Day is that no substantial group, so far as I am aware, is clamoring for repeal of the Sixteenth Amendment which made possible the agony we have all suffered in recent weeks. The mere mention of the Sixteenth Amendment serves as a reminder that there was an interval of 18 years - supposedly blissful from one viewpoint - in which no income tax could be collected because the Supreme Court had found such assaults upon capital to be unconstitutional. But, alas, the country overruled the court, and repentance for that rash action has not yet gone far enough to sustain a repeal movement.
This complacency seems to be strangely out of keeping with the trend of the times. How can a generation that gets excited over Proposition 13 and the proposal to achieve a balanced budget by the hocus-pocus of a constitutional amendment fail to launch an assault on the chief source of their woe - the Sixteenth Amendment? A bit of history may throw some light on that puzzle, and it might even serve to ease the almost universal Form 1040 blues.
Congress found the income tax essential to national survival during the Civil War, and no barrier was raised against it at that time even though the founding fathers had written into the Constitution a provision that "no capitation, or other direct, tax shall be laid unless in proportion to the census or enumeration herein before directed to be taken." In 1796 the Supreme Court had decided that the phrase "direct tax" applied only to poll taxes and land taxes. This interpretation stood for nearly 100 years, but finally went down in one of the strangest brainstorms that has ever afflicted the Supreme Court.
In 1894 Congress concluded that an income tax was once more essential to finance the requirements of a rapidly expanding nation. It imposed a tax of 2 percent on all incomes of $4,000 or more. Looking down the road to a day when the tax might be multiplied, men of wealth sounded a strident alarm. The tax was challenged in the courts as an unconstitutional violation of the "direct tax" limitation.
One great lawyer, Joseph Choate, told the court: "If you approve this law, with this iniquitous exemption of $4,000, and this communistic march goes on and five years hence a statute comes to you with an exemption of $20,000 and a tax of 20 percent upon all having incomes in excess of that amount, how can you meet it in view of the decision which my opponents ask you now to render? There is protection now or never."
The court decided that the constitutional prohibition on land taxes included the income from land, but it divided 4-to-4 on the question of whether the entire act was invalid because of that flaw. So a reargument was ordered. The second hearing attracted long lines of concerned citizens trying to get into the tiny court chamber in the Capitol. By a 5-to-4 vote the justices decided that the entire act, including the tax on income from personal property, was unconstitutional.
The decision produced a furor, not only because it denied the country much needed revenued but also because one member of the court switched his vote after the second argument. Justice Howell E. Jackson, who had been absent when the first case was heard, voted to uphold the act. This meant that one member of the new majority, popularly supposed to be Justice George Shiras, changed his mind. Whatever may have been the reasoning behind that momentous switch, the explanation of the court's strange behavior given by Justice Stephen J. Field is what caught public attention. "The present assault upon captial," he wrote on a concurring opinion, "is but the beginnging."
Justice John M. Harlan, in his dissent openly accused his brethren of nullifying "a sovereign power expressly granted to the general government" mainly "for reasons of an economic nature." Justice Jackson called the decision "the most disastrous blow ever struck at the constitutional power of Congress." For nearly two decades the country suffered a series of economic evils with which it could not cope for want of revenue. Someone calculated that the unfortunate decision cost the government $18 billion, and a later Chief Justice, Charles Evans Hughes, characterized the Income Tax decision as one of the court's most serious "self-inflicted wounds."
With that history behind it, I guess the Sixteenth Amendment is a secure fixture in our system. Ratified in 1913, it gives Congress authority "to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several states." When the agony of recent weeks passes and sober reflection is once more possible, most of us will doubtless agree that no feasible substitute for the income tax has been devised. To paraphrase Churchill's comment on democracy, the income tax is the worst device for collecting revenue ever invented, except all the others.
Since the country has come to rely so much upon the income tax, the hopes of beleaguered taxpayers in recent years have focused upon simplification of the law. Politicians have been promising forms that are easier to understand ever since the days of Herbert Hoover. Legislators and bureaucrats have labored mightily, and some minor improvements have been made. Yet for many taxpayers the pre-April 15 ordeal has steadily worsened, and the end of the mounting complexity is nowhere is sight.
The simple truth is that the extraction of some $500 billion from the public by income and other taxes cannot be simplified much. Laws written for easy comprehension of the rank and file leave loopholes through which the unscrupulous can drive a bulldozer. As our society becomes more complex, we can scarcely expect to retain the easier ways of the good old days. It may be comforting to tilt at windmills, and certainly something must be done to curb the incessant inflation of taxes along with everything else, but let us not suppose that the income tax is going away or that wrestling with Form 1040 is going to be made as easy as watching TV. CAPTION: Illustration, Taxpayers line up to pay the first U.S. income tax-1862.