Legitimacy and the Right of Revolution: The Role of Tax Protests and Anti-Tax Rhetoric in America

113 Pages Posted: 12 Feb 2003 Last revised: 5 Mar 2020

Date Written: 2001


A voluntary system of taxation strengthens a government's legitimacy both literally and symbolically. By providing the government with revenues it needs to perform the functions the people expect, taxes ensure the populace's continuing support of the government. Symbolically, the act of paying taxes strengthens legitimacy by serving simultaneously as a tangible reminder of governmental authority and a symbol of loyalty to that government.

Anti-tax rhetoric, in contrast, can threaten legitimacy at both an actual and symbolic level. Symbolically, by serving as a focal point for antigovernment sentiment and general political discontents, it can unify and encourage dissent from, dissatisfaction with, and distrust of government. From a practical standpoint, successful anti-tax rhetoric increases non-compliance with tax laws that in turn can endanger the existence of the state by strangling its means of support.

In the United States anti-tax rhetoric poses a particularly serious threat to legitimacy because anti-tax sentiments, along with anti-government sentiments generally, are an intrinsic aspect of American patriotism and national character. From the Revolutionary War's Boston Tea Party to recent re-enactments of that famous event by dumping the Internal Revenue Code into the Boston harbor, Americans have demonstrated their patriotism and commitment to liberty through resistance - often violent resistance - to taxes. Is the current anti-tax rhetoric a real challenge to the government's legitimacy or a safety valve through which people can vent their discontents?

This Article analyzes the relationship between tax rhetoric and the production and maintenance of legitimacy in the United States. It begins with an examination of legitimacy and the function of rhetoric, concentrating on the relationship of the American conception of sovereignty to both the right of revolution and to taxation. It next discusses a widely perceived general "crisis" in legitimacy before examining the current wave of tax protests.

The Article concludes that American anti-tax rhetoric - like the power to tax itself - has both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side, it represents core American beliefs in freedom, liberty, the right to participate in government, and the right to freedom of speech, assembly and protest, all of which are captured in the patriotic phrase "no taxation without representation." Anti-tax rhetoric, therefore, can buttress the government's legitimacy by strengthening these aspects of American democracy. The negative side of the rhetoric, however, reinforces deeply rooted, often virulent, anti-tax, anti-government sentiments that can challenge the legitimacy of the tax itself and the government that imposes it. In light of this duality, the Article suggests that politicians substitute meaningful debate for their current (often inflammatory) sound bites in order to maintain the delicate balance between healthy and self-destructive tax rhetoric.

Suggested Citation

Kornhauser, Marjorie E., Legitimacy and the Right of Revolution: The Role of Tax Protests and Anti-Tax Rhetoric in America (2001). Buffalo Law Review, Vol. 50, p. 819, 2002, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=379552

Marjorie E. Kornhauser (Contact Author)

Tulane University School of Law ( email )

6329 Freret Street
New Orleans, LA 70118
United States

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