Brian Birdnow

Monday, February 25th, marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution, allowing the US government the authority to assess and impose an income tax on the citizens, by-passing the states in the process. Many on the political Left can barely conceal their glee and they are busy needling Conservatives, talking about the suitability of a “party” celebrating the centenary of the Sixteenth Amendment.

Why should we celebrate the amendment that has granted the government a constitutional means to appropriate a fortune every year using the threat of adverse action to do so, much in the same manner as a bank robber, or a highwayman? The deep thinkers in the liberal media claim that the income tax benefits us all. Kevin Horrigan, writing in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of Sunday, February 24th stated, “…few people love No. 16 (The Sixteenth Amendment) which is strange, considering how we all benefit from it.” Mr. Horrigan, Deputy Editorial Page Editor at the Post-Dispatch, goes on to recite a laundry list of “benefits” we derive from the income tax. He declares, “From the air we breathe and the water we drink to the security we feel at night, from the teachers in the classroom to the meat on the table to the airplanes that do not crash, from FEMA and CIA, FBI and BATF and dozens of other acronym agencies and programs, taxes-as Justice Holmes-are what we pay for civilized society.”

Yet, Mr. Horrigan does not note that the Sixteenth Amendment made it easier for the Federal Government to undermine the Tenth Amendment, and to begin usurping the powers reserved to the states, with public education standing as Exhibit A. One might also question the efficacy of FEMA and the BATF, but those are subjects for other columns.

Mr. Horrigan goes on to give a selective history of the campaign to pass the Sixteenth Amendment, and its aftermath. He points out, correctly, that the Congress had passed a 2% income tax bill in 1894, but that the Supreme Court rejected this tax in an 1895 ruling. He points out that those in favor of the tax began a campaign to amend the Constitution to allow the Federal Government to place a direct tax on the citizenry and that the amendment was duly approved by ¾ of the states, in relatively short order, by February 25, 1913. It is here that Horrigan’s analysis goes off track.

First, he quotes Harvard historian Jill Lepore who argues that the momentum behind the amendment was “…a populist rage at the growing divide between the rich and the poor.” Public opinion is rarely generated or expressed spontaneously it is usually manufactured. The income tax was, from the start, a Soak-The –Rich effort designed by demagogues to capitalize on class envy and hatred.

Most of those who supported the income tax before 1913 rested easily with the conviction that this could never rise up and bite their hands. They envisioned a measure that could be employed to rap the knuckles of the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Astors but would not penalize the ordinary workingman. Would working class voters have supported an amendment that would allow the government to scoop off 31% of their income? Would working class politicians have supported an amendment that would permit the federal Government to levy a 31% tax on the income of working class voters? It would be an even- money bet that pro-labor politicians wouldn’t have supported this if they knew they would have to defend the vote later.

Mr. Horrigan goes on to rehash the tired old liberal playbook concerning the 1920s and 30s. He brings Dr. Lepore, Harvard’s Own, into the act again but they both omit the fact that the top tax rate of 7% in 1913, imposed on incomes of $500,000 (Nearly $7 million in 2013 dollars) exploded to a top rate of 78% in 1918. Mr. Horrigan chooses to concentrate, however, on “…the long effort that began with Andrew Mellon, Treasury Secretary under three Republican Presidents, to convince Americans that the income tax was the spawn of Satan.” In truth, Mellon’s effort to reduce the tax burden on all classes was largely successful, but the top rate never fell below 25% again. Moreover, Herbert Hoover ignored Mellon’s advice and engineered the largest tax increase in American history at the beginning of 1932, bullying Congress into accepting a top rate of 63%. From here it was a short step to the confiscatory 91% rates of the late 1940s and early 50s.

Yet, despite all of the evidence of the deleterious effects of the income tax, Kevin Horrigan wonders why Americans do not like the income tax, aside from the fact that anything that sops up 1/3 of a middle class income could not be popular among that class of people. He plaintively asks why “…we are a nation that reviles the income tax, instead of acknowledging what we owe to it and insisting that it become as simple, and fair as it was, say, in 1913.”

On this suggestion I think that most TH readers would agree with Kevin Horrigan 100%. Let’s return to the tax code of 1913 which, when adjusted for inflation, would impose a 1% tax on single workers earning $42,000 and 1% for married workers earning $56,000. We then move to a 2% rate on the 2013 equivalent of $280,000 and on up to a top rate of 7% on an income of $7,000,000. This fantasy would be an income tax worthy of something less than the political equivalent of a skunk at a garden party. Until such a thing comes to pass the Hundredth Anniversary of the Sixteenth Amendment is a date, which should live in infamy.


Brian Birdnow

Brian E. Birdnow is a historian and teaches at a university in the St. Louis area.

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