The Consistency of Conservative Tax Policy
Marjorie E. Kornhauser
Tulane University School of Law
May 15, 2013
Northwestern University Law Review, Vol. 108, 2013
Tulane Public Law Research Paper No. 13-10
Modern American tax policy is in a state of disarray. Although conservatives are not solely to blame, their anti-tax campaigns bear a heavy responsibility for this situation. It is not that they fail to discuss issues; to the contrary they, raise important questions, such as the proper distribution of tax burdens, the relationship of taxation to economic growth, and especially the connection between taxing and spending — an issue that liberals often ignore. Rather, the problem is they consistently wrap their arguments in the American flag. Americans are especially susceptible to this technique given the country’s long history of anti-tax sentiment that dates back to the founding of the nation. Consequently, conservatives’ century-long campaign linking seemingly objective economic arguments for low (or no) taxation to American democracy have forced tax debates into a highly emotional, patriotic framework that impedes coherent debate and limits the range of politically feasible options.
My paper illustrates the consistency of conservative tax arguments — substance, style, and method — by examining conservative campaigns between 1924 and 1936 that linked opposition to a soldiers’ bonus to a reduction in taxes. These campaigns are especially interesting to examine because the time period in which they occurred bears several important similarities to present times. The economic conditions during the Depression present obvious similarities to current times, but other important similarities make this a useful period of comparison. Like today, the growth of government, especially at the federal level, during this period strengthened conservative fears of unconstitutional expansion of the central government and the consequent weakening of American democracy and the sapping of American character. Like today, conservatives saw taxation as a key factor in this crisis. Since taxes funded expanded government functions, cutting taxes would help shrink government.
Finally, although lobbying is co-existent with government, modern, media-driven sell-the-candidate (or policy) campaigns first matured in this era. In both eras the development of new mass media invigorated the marketplace of ideas even as the increased knowledge about human behavior enhanced opportunities to manipulate public opinion. This is especially true for grassroots organizations that frequently present themselves to the public as broadly-supported civic groups providing neutral educational information whereas, in fact, it is a small (often wealthy) number of individuals and/or companies trying to influence the public to adopt their self-interested viewpoint.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 34
Keywords: taxation, politics, history, government, rhetoric
Date posted: May 16, 2013 ; Last revised: August 26, 2014
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