The fastest, most effective way to deprive government of power is to deprive it of money. Legitimacy requires moral authority. Power just requires cash. Money is not just the mother’s milk of politics: it is the blood and oxygen as well. Because governments do not act to lessen their own power, they never act voluntarily to lessen their access to money. A tax revolt can force or induce government to shut off the tap for a time, but just how a tax revolt works is an uncertain thing.
We do not have much experience with tax revolts in our country. California’s Proposition 2.5 to limit property tax increases had success, and the movement spread to other states. We have a number of organizations that lobby for tax reform in Washington, but by and large Americans have paid a great deal in taxes without much public protest either about high rates or about how it is spent.
Not until the Tea Party, that is. This spontaneous movement, named Taxed Enough Already, came out to catch people’s attention on April 15, 2009. No amount of ridicule, skepticism, mockery and deceit could tamp down its central aim. We have to lower taxes. To do that, we have to lower spending. To to that, we have to reduce government’s reach. Smaller government means less spending means lower taxes. Why this message was met with such mockery is something of a mystery.
Whether the movement achieves success, or whether we can call the movement a revolt, we can’t know yet. We can say the movement has been somewhat inchoate so far, rising as it has from frustrations that have developed in so many places, over such a long time.
To organize a tax revolt across so vast a land, when the institutions of tax collection are so well established, is a hard task. Would a tax revolt require that everyone quit heir W-2 jobs and go to work off the books, as so many people do already because they have no choice about the matter? Would it require that people stop filing tax returns? Who would be the first person willing to go to jail for tax avoidance?
During revolutionary periods in Europe, workers’ movements have called for a general strike. A strike counts as a temporary albeit radical pressure tactic, but no general strike has ever reestablished liberty, reduced the size of government, or lowered taxes. Besides, the purpose of a revolt in the American case is not to bring down our government, but to replace it with new institutions located elsewhere. If that distinction isn’t clear, think of the difference between the Russian revolution in 1917, and the division of Czechoslovakia into two states after the Cold War. Recall the breakup of the Soviet Union itself. In both the Czechoslovakian and the Soviet cases, locally based governmental institutions replaced much larger, more distant power centers.
How would you organize a broad-based, radical tax revolt in the United States? It could come from citizens groups like the Tea party, but it would probably require leadership from the states’ governors, and from other leaders within each state. Meantime, the states have other, less fraught ways to make themselves more independent of the national government. In a tax revolt, citizens need support from their state governments. For alternate methods of resistance, state governments need their citizens’ support. Either way, citizens and state governments must be united to make resistance work. The national government can readily interfere with piecemeal, unorganized resistance. Therefore we want measures that bring citizens and state governments together in a common cause to dismantle federal authority over individuals and states.
Originally published in Revolution on the Ground. For an interesting article on state resistance to federal policy, see Why ObamaCare Is Still No Sure Thing.