Joseph J. Thorndike

Tax | Politics | History

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Their Fair Share book cover

An Excerpt from Chapter One: A Nation of Taxpayers

Americans hate taxes, right?

We vote for candidates who promise to cut them and punish politicians who agree to raise them. We tell pollsters we don’t want to pay them, and we teach our children that the nation was founded to resist them. From the Boston Tea Party to Shay’s Rebellion to Proposition 13, we’re a nation of tax revolters. Hand us a pitchfork, and we’ll march on Washington.

It’s a good story, that tale of the antitax American. And a convenient one for a certain kind of politician. But it’s also wrong. Yes, Americans hate taxes. But so do people all over the world—our aversion to forced extraction is hardly unique. And while we may not whistle happily as we hustle to the post office on April 15 (or ask a computer to do the hustling for us), we generally pay up with minimal fuss. Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed that “taxes are what we pay for civilized society,” and for more than 200 years, Americans have been remarkably willing to foot the bill.1

To be sure, American history is peppered with tax revolts. But they are the exception, not the rule. And the meaning of those revolts is not unitary and timeless. Some have been sparked by the simple financial hardship of paying taxes. During the 1930s, for instance, large swaths of the nation were plagued by property tax revolts as hard-pressed farmers and homeowners struggled to make ends meet.2 But other protests have been driven by complaints about tax avoidance and distributional justice. Loopholes, favors, and special privileges in the tax law have fed a powerful sense of injustice, as has overreliance on certain revenue tools—like the protective tariff—that have burdened some groups more than others. Consider the Boston Tea Party, the creation myth for today’s antitax activists. That totemic revolt was actually a protest against tax loopholes, not high taxes. The colonists who dumped tea into Boston Harbor certainly disliked paying the British tax on tea. But they were moved to action by a special tax exemption that Parliament had granted to the East India Company, a well-connected enterprise that happened to be in dire need of a government bailout. It was a loophole, not a tax, that prompted a band of ersatz Indians to toss the tea in Boston harbor.3

The Tea Party of 1773, in other words, has something in common with the Tea Party of 2011. But the connection is not a shared aversion to high taxes. Rather, it’s a keen sensitivity to issues of fairness and political equity. When Rick Santelli, a political commentator for CNBC, ignited the modern Tea Party in 2009, his chief complaint was about favoritism—specifically, a proposal to have the federal government rescue debt-ridden homeowners. “This is America!” he shouted in his famous televised rant. “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage?”4 As soon became clear, not many. And it’s that rejection of favoritism and special privilege that ties the Tea Parties together and situates both within a longer tradition of American fiscal protest.

Americans, it turns out, have been willing to pay the price for civilization. But they’ve objected when anyone has tried to get their civilization on the cheap.


Historically, tax avoidance has been a key element in larger debates about tax fairness. Since the founding, the federal government has been funded by a series of fiscal regimes, each defined, in the words of historian W. Elliot Brownlee, by a “system of taxation with its own characteristic tax bases, rate structures, and social intentions.”5 The arrival of each new regime (and the disappearance of its predecessor) has always been prompted by a crisis of some sort—usually a war, but sometimes an eco- nomic collapse. At these inflection points in our fiscal history, policy debates have featured practical questions about revenue adequacy and fiscal infrastructure. But they have often turned on grander issues, including questions of social justice, distributional equity, and civic responsibility.6

Our current regime is an old one, dating to the 1940s. World War II forced lawmakers to cast about for new sources of federal revenue, and the solutions they hit upon—a broad-based, progressive tax on individual income, a moderate tax on corporate profits, and a flat-rate levy on wage income—remain central to federal finance even today. This regime also embodied a bargain of sorts—a deal hashed out between politicians and their constituents about who should pay for national priorities. Ultimately, middle-class Americans agreed to shoulder much of the fiscal burden, chiefly through the income and payroll taxes. In return, however, they were promised that rich Americans would pay higher rates on their incomes, as well as special taxes on large estates.

This bargain lies at the heart of progressive taxation in the modern American tradition. It rests on the notion that rich people should contribute not just proportionally to the nation’s treasury, but somewhat more than proportionally. That proposition—that tax rates should climb along with income—has long enjoyed broad (if sometimes only implicit) popularity with voters.7 Even today, when antitax ideology seems to course through the electorate, it still commands majority support. In 2008, for instance, pollsters found that 63 percent of respondents believed making taxes more progressive was a “very good” or “somewhat good” expression of American patriotism.8

Such poll results are consistent with historical attitudes toward progressive taxation. Over the decades, progressive taxes have sometimes been advanced as a means to remake society along more egalitarian lines. On June 19, 1935, for instance, Franklin Roosevelt defended to Congress his sweeping plan for tax reform by highlighting the failures of the existing system. “Our revenue laws have operated in many ways to the unfair advantage of the few,” he declared, “and they have done little to prevent an unjust concentration of wealth and economic power.”9

More often, however, progressive taxes have been defended as a means to redistribute not wealth, but the tax burden. Rep. Cordell Hull of Tennessee, a leading proponent of the income tax during the early 20th century, repeatedly stressed the need to reallocate fiscal responsibilities, not economic power. “I have no disposition to tax wealth unnecessarily or unjustly,” he said, “but I do believe that the wealth of the country should bear its just share of the burden of taxation and that it should not be permitted to shirk that duty.”10

A “just share”, a “fair share”—such phrases are a rhetorical fixture of American tax politics. But what do they mean? Often almost nothing. The notion of a “fair share” certainly doesn’t require, in any scientific or technical sense, that Americans adopt a graduated tax on personal income. And it certainly doesn’t provide much guidance in determining how much graduation in the rate structure will best serve the cause of fiscal justice. That question—one of the most intractable facing policymakers— is deeply political, its answers inherently arbitrary.

Nonetheless, the notion of a fair share has propelled the drive for tax reform during crucial moments in American history. It has, moreover, given a particular cast and content to the policies emerging from these moments. Politicians have deployed the notion of a fair share to advance progressive taxes, including individual and corporate income taxes, as well as the estate tax. They have also used it to deflect calls for other kinds of taxation, including broad-based taxes on consumption. As a result, the United States stands alone among large industrialized nations in resisting the global popularity of the value-added tax. The absence of such a tax from our fiscal infrastructure is every bit as distinctive as our heavy reliance on more progressive alternatives.11

Perhaps most notably, the notion of a “fair share” has resonated strongly with arguments about tax avoidance. Americans have long demanded a measure of fair dealing in the operation of their tax system. Movements for sweeping tax reform have often been driven by a popular suspicion that some people—usually, but not always, rich people—are shirking their fiscal responsibilities. In 2003, for instance, only 14 percent of respondents to a national survey said their chief complaint about federal taxation was the large amount they had to pay. By contrast, 51 percent cited a worry that “wealthy people get away not paying their fair share.”12

And there’s that phrase again: arguably the most powerful trope in American tax politics. It represents contested terrain, with champions of disparate policies vying to claim it as their own. But if legislation is a measure of success, then advocates of progressivity—and the income tax in particular—have been the victors in this battle. Fairness-as-progressivity has been the ascendant definition for decades, and it lies at the heart of our current tax system.


1. Compania de Tabacos v. Collector, 275 U.S. 87, 100 (1927).

2. For a fine and underappreciated history of these revolts, see David T. Beito, Taxpayers in Revolt: Tax Resistance during the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).

3. On the Tea Party, see Benjamin Woods Labaree, ed., The Boston Tea Party,Northeastern Classics (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1979), 1:58; and Benjamin L. Carp, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010). For an emphasis on the Tea Party’s antimonopoly (as opposed to antitax) origins, see Arthur Meier Schlesinger, “The Uprising against the East India Company,” Political Science Quarterly 32, no. 1 (1917). For analysis of the Revolution’s role in popular memory and contemporary politics, see Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

4. “Santelli’s Tea Party,” CNBC, 19 February 2009,

5. W. Elliot Brownlee, “Reflections on the History of Taxation,” in Funding the Modern American State, 1941–1995: The Rise and Fall of the Era of Easy Finance, ed. W. Elliot Brownlee (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1996), 5.

6. W. Elliot Brownlee, “Tax Regimes, National Crisis, and State-Building in America,” inFunding the Modern American State, 1941–1995: The Rise and Fall of the Era of Easy Finance, ed. W. Elliot Brownlee (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1996), 37.

7. In surveys, Americans often confess ignorance about fiscal terminology; in 2003, for instance, 56 percent said they weren’t sure what “progressive taxes” actually were. “Americans’ Views on Taxes” survey, February 2003, accessed 25 April 2011 from iPOLL Databank,

8. “True Patriot Survey,” August 2008, accessed 25 April 2011 from iPOLL Databank,

9. Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Message to Congress on Tax Revision,” 19 June 1935, American Presidency Project,

10. Cordell Hull and Andrew Henry Thomas Berding, The Memoirs of Cordell Hull (New York: Macmillan, 1948), 1:58.

11. Joel Slemrod and Jon M. Bakija, Taxing Ourselves: A Citizen’s Guide to the Debate over Taxes, 4th ed. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 16.

12. “Americans’ Views on Taxes.”


Their Fair Share: Taxing the Rich in the Age of FDR, by Joseph J. Thorndike, will be available from the Urban Institute Press in paperback (ISBN 978-0-87766-771-1, 6″ x 9″, 362 pages, $29.50) and eBook (ISBN 978-0-87766-782-7, $14.99).

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