Pay Your Taxes

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Social justice claims, The richer you are, the more you should pay — the income tax must function as a leveler to soften capitalism's inequities.

Thrifty, hardworking, risk-taking Virtue indignantly replies, I earned my money! Where's the justice in letting government confiscate it and redistribute it to freeloaders and bureaucracy?

It is along this old ideological fault line that the journalist Steven R. Weisman has assembled the narrative of The Great Tax Wars (Simon & Schuster; 419 pages), an absorbing history of the income tax. Weisman monitors the argument — which continues today — from the time that Abraham Lincoln first pushed through Congress an unprecedented tax on income in 1862 to pay the Union's immense war expenses, to the early 1940s, when a far larger conflict turned America into a nation of more or less uncomplaining income tax payers.

Weisman uses the history of the income tax as a way of opening a door on American social history. Well before the Civil War, Americans experienced huge inequalities in wealth. But poorer Americans have often shown a wistful tolerance of wealth, holding out hope that they may get a share of it themselves before long.

The book presents a rich cast of characters. Here's industrialist Andrew Carnegie in 1889 calling the accumulation of wealth "one of the worst species of idolatry" and hilariously praising the virtues of "honest poverty." Here's Andrew Mellon, Treasury Secretary under Presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover, arguing that when initiative is crippled by high taxes, an individual "will no longer exert himself and the country will be deprived of the energy on which its continued greatness depends." This might have been written yesterday.

The Supreme Court in 1895 sided with hardworking Virtue and declared the income tax unconstitutional. But 18 years later, the Social Justice team prevailed, and a constitutional amendment installed the income tax as a fixture in American life, as proverbially inevitable as death, and almost as irritating.