Progressive Voices

A history lesson about taxes

The latest wave of anti-tax fever continues to spread across the nation. Vast amounts of economic and historical data from the past half century show that tax cuts, especially for the rich, do not produce sustained economic growth or more opportunities for the middle class. Yet anti-tax ideologues either brush off such evidence (who needs facts when you have a winning political slogan?), or fall back on the old saw about taxes being an attack on liberty. Grover Norquist, the lord high executioner of the anti-tax movement, said in a recent interview with TIME magazine: “Taxes…are stealing money from some people to give it to others.”

Norquist and his legions of followers are not only ignorant of current economic realities, they are also oblivious to four centuries of America’s history with taxes. From the days when the first European colonists set foot in the New World, Americans have paid taxes for public goods, for social welfare, and even (gasp!) for economic redistribution.

For centuries, many Americans have acknowledged the obvious—there are certain things necessary for a society to grow and prosper, such as transportation networks and educational systems, which the private sector will not provide because it does not see an easy profit in such ventures. Back in the colonial period, citizens paid taxes and even were expected to work to maintain public roads and turnpikes. In the nineteenth century, many states invested in canals and later railroads; this was also the period when public schools began to flourish. It is no coincidence that many southern states, including North Carolina, lagged behind in such public investments and thereby also suffered from chronic poverty and delayed economic growth.

Today, our nation desperately needs to update its infrastructure—roads, bridges, ports, electrical grids, sewer systems—much of which was built with tax dollars during the Great Depression and the 1950s. Yet the anti-tax zealots tell us that we are “broke” as a nation, and we cannot increase taxes on even the wealthiest among us; at the very same time they are quick to bemoan traffic jams and power blackouts. Do we really expect the “magic of the market” to fix all these problems? If the private sector has not yet jumped into the sewer business, why should we believe that they are just waiting for the golden opportunity to make billions in marketing water lines?

Americans have also recognized that taxes are necessary to provide for the most vulnerable among us. The first English settlers came from a nation governed by poor laws and statutes of “charitable uses” to aid a broad range of needy people including “aged, impotent, and poor people,…sick and maimed soldiers,…orphans,…poor maids,…young tradesmen…and persons decayed.” It was expected that everyone who could afford to do so would pay taxes to help those who could not help themselves—religious beliefs, and basic human decency demanded no less.

Today, many American seem to be infected with the disease of cruel indifference to the plight of those less fortunate than themselves. The prevailing attitude is that those who have all the goodies must deserve everything they got, and those who lack the basic necessities of life deserve their cruel fate because they must be lazy and morally deficient. The unrepentant Ebenezer Scrooge would be so proud of our renewed devotion to the harsh discipline of the market.

Finally, for nearly a century, Americans have understood that one of the essential purposes of a genuinely progressive tax structure is a healthy dose of economic distribution. There is nothing evil or immoral or un-American about taking something from the rich to the help the poor—it is not only social justice but also the foundation of a sustainable economy. Back in the bad-old-days of laissez-faire economics, when the rich paid little or no taxes, our nation was racked constantly by deep boom and bust cycles. We had major depressions nearly every twenty years throughout the nineteenth century, and everything hit the fan in the 1930s. Since the Great Depression, most sensible people assumed we had learned the lesson that gross inequities in wealth lead not only to social dislocation and political distortion but also to economic disaster. Thus, one of government’s essential roles is to prevent the accumulation of the nation’s wealth into a small cabal of plutocrats.

Today, conservatives are not just singing hymns to the discredited Reaganomics of the past generation; they are trying to resurrect nineteenth-century notions of limited government, the purity of free markets, and even a return to the gold standard! They want to regulate an internet economy with doctrines based on the horse and buggy. The current obsession with reducing taxes to the barest minimum flies in the face of common-sense economics and centuries of American history. This ideology is a recipe for instability and impending disaster, with devastating consequences not only for our weakest citizens but for all working people.

Dr. David A. Zonderman is a Professor of History at North Carolina State University. 

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