The Roper poll reported the other day that the "tax fever" that swept the country last summer has cooled down. The proportion of citizens who are enraged by the amount of taxes they pay, it says, is down sharply. Does this mean that the great tax revolt of 1978 was a success? Or does it mean that the massive publicity that accompanied California's Proposition 13 triggered a temporary public reaction that pollsters, commentators and politicians all took too seriously?
The numbers are fascinating. In May 1978, 26 percent of those polled said the federal income tax was "excessively high." That figure jumped to 41 percent two months later just after the California election and has now settled back to 29 percent. The real estate tax, the real target of Proposition 13, was called excessively high by 32 percent before California, 36 percent just after that election, and only 25 percent now. The pattern for other kinds of taxes is similar.
These numbers led the Roper Organization to suggest a parallel between the rise of Howard Jarvis and Proposition 13 in 1978 and the rise and fall of Pierre Poujard and his anti-tax party in France in 1956. The Poujadistes got 12 percent of the vote that year but quickly faded away, in part because their ideas were sterile and in part because the French government began to look more closely at some of their complaints.
You can carry the parallel further. American governments, state and federal, have been looking closely at spending policies and tax rates since last summer. This has not brought the kind of reductions that some of the tax revolt leaders wanted, but it may explain part of the lessened indignation about taxes.
Except for the brief flurry last year, this poll and others show that taxpayers are concerned less about tax rates that about the way governments spend money. The belief is well-established that the federal government, above all, could deliver the same services at a substantially lower cost, if only it would try. That's why the poll shows the public still thinks the federal income tax is too high but now regards most of the taxes on which state and local governments rely as about right.
Here, evidently, is the reason that the tax fever could rise so sharply and diminish so suddenly. It was a way to send a message about spending policies, and once the politicians recognized what was being communicated, the momentum disappeared. Only in those places where the antagonists took themselves too seriously and did too well did it go beyond that. And there -- in California and Prince George's County, Md., for example -- the voters will probably have to undo someday the measures they approved last year.