Albert Einstein once said that “the hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.” In The Great Tax Wars, Steven Weisman attempts to prove Einstein wrong as he sets about to make obscure debates about taxation in the United States, in the years from 1860 to 1920, read as if their “arguments were in the pages of the newspapers, magazines and news broadcasts and perhaps even the television talk shows of today.” Despite the difficulty of this task, Weisman succeeds in producing an accessible and even captivating account of the complex politics of the income tax, although he does not always delve into the implications of his narrative.
The story that Weisman, the chief diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times, reports is an important one: during the years between the Civil War and World War I, opposing political factions in American society fought bitterly over the enactment of the income tax. Prior to the Civil War, the U.S. government did not tax incomes; instead, it derived its revenues from tariffs, or duties on imports. The distinction between these two forms of taxation is significant because the poorer segments of society bear the primary burden for paying tariffs, since the poor spend larger percentages of their incomes on basic goods than do the wealthy. On the other hand, wealthy people shoulder the brunt of a progressive income tax, which rises at higher income levels. Essentially, during the period Weisman examines, America decided whether the poor or the wealthy would pay the costs of running the federal government.
Recounting the drama of this decision is Weisman’s goal, and he meets it in a clear and entertaining fashion. In lively and detailed prose, he depicts the development of U.S. tax policy using anecdotes and personal tidbits to enliven an installment of American history that most would otherwise find dull. Weisman’s experience in journalism is evident; his narrative of specific episodes in the adoption of the income tax reads like a thorough and engaging magazine article. For instance, describing J. P. Morgan’s bailout of the federal government in response to a crisis in gold reserves in 1895, Weisman explains the workings of the financial crisis in terms easily understood by a general reader, interweaving economic history with a colorful evocation of Morgan’s personality, business life, and aspirations.
Beyond presenting these important policy debates in an approachable manner, Weisman also claims to probe some of the tensions that he sees as fundamental to the political development of American society, namely the conflict between “justice” and “virtue.” Some Americans firmly embrace the ideal of “justice,” the belief that, in the interest of fairness, resources should be distributed somewhat equally among citizens. In contrast, others hold that wealth comes as a consequence of “virtue”—work, creativity, thrift—and that the wealthy are thus entitled to keep the monetary rewards of their own talent and good behavior.
Readers may be tempted to criticize The Great Tax Wars for oversimplifying these complicated ideals and drawing the distinction between them too broadly. After all, many Americans have combined ideals of justice and virtue, and both of these are beliefs of great historical complexity. But Weisman does not claim to provide a full analysis of Americans’ belief systems; he only wants to clarify and discuss a specific policy debate. And, as he shows, rhetoric falling more clearly into one or the other of his two categories did shape the course of the historical controversy. In some of the most vivid passages of the book, Weisman explores how major American historical figures such as William Jennings Bryan and the Rockefellers mobilized the language of justice or virtue to sway debates that would influence the tax system for generations. For example, in a gripping scene, Weisman recounts the day in 1894 that Bryan convinced Congress to enact America’s first peacetime income tax, using his celebrated rhetorical skills to place the burden of government financing on the wealthy and to condemn those who were unwilling to accept this responsibility as unpatriotic and unwelcome in American society.
As in this episode, Weisman’s account of the great tax wars focuses almost entirely on the role of powerful individuals in shaping tax policy. Weisman provides extensive biographical material on these historical figures and explains how their backgrounds influenced their tax policy beliefs. He discusses, for example, how Teddy Roosevelt’s experiences as New York police commissioner convinced him that income inequality would lead to chaos, crime and anarchy. By heavily emphasizing the power of personality in shaping tax history, Weisman implicitly recognizes a consequential policymaking ingredient frequently ignored in more academic accounts of the subject. Realizing that important political shifts can turn on the incidental personality traits and preferences of national leaders, Weisman brings out the deeply complex and even arbitrary nature of the tax-making process. In the United States at least, new taxes often arise not out of a major public outcry, but from the unique combination of historical personalities, influences, and ideas that converges in centers of power.
Yet, while tacitly acknowledging this point, Weisman misrepresents his account when he characterizes it as a contest of the two distributive ideals of justice and virtue. According to the details of Weisman’s narrative, the enactment of a permanent income tax, the climax of his story, resulted not from a major shift in Americans’ sentiments about justice, but, in large part, from personality traits of the sort illustrated in Teddy Roosevelt’s fear of anarchy. Similarly, the increase and entrenchment of income taxation during World War I emerges not as a victory of the idea of equality over that of individual achievement, but instead as a triumph of vocal congressional proponents of the income tax, such as Representative Claude Kitchin, responding to the federal government’s need for revenue. By framing his book in terms of abstract distributive ideals, Weisman subtracts the recognition his analysis otherwise accords to individual leaders, their personal preferences and their power struggles, in enacting the income tax.
While focused primarily on the 1860-1920 period, Weisman also takes a brief stab at examining post-World War I tax policy, including the tax battles of recent decades, though explaining current tax policy is plainly not his main goal. His account does raise, however, important questions about the more contemporary period, when the relative role of personalities and values shifts in current tax politics is even less certain than in his study. With its engaging style and careful retelling of several decisive episodes in American political history, The Great Tax Wars should draw readers to pose such about questions the tax wars of our own day.