All Commentary
Sunday, April 1, 1990

Book Review: Taxpayers In Revolt: Tax Resistance During The Great Depression by David T. Beito

The University of North Carolina Press, P.O. Box 2288, Chapel Hill, NC 27515-2288 • 1989 • 216 pages • $29.95 cloth

After the stock market crash of 1929, hard-pressed taxpayers in several major cities in the East and Midwest formed taxpayers’ leagues to press for lower property taxes. This book chronicles their efforts, describes the opposition they met, and tells why they ultimately failed.

David Beito, a research fellow at the Institute for Humane Studies and an urban studies fellow with the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, does a masterful job of relating this interesting story. He writes clearly, and his research is thorough and precise. Most important, he recognizes the far-reaching implications of the controversies of the ‘30s that continue to influence policy-making and popular opinion today. As he writes in the book’s introduction:

The taxpayers’ revolt of the 1930s gives the historian a window into a whole set of larger questions. Do political and economic classes play any role in tax crises and, if so, how do these classes arise and how are they constituted? How do governments maintain authority and legitimacy when their source of money is challenged? Lastly, a study of depression-era tax resistance challenges prevalent historiographical interpretations of the vitality and continuity of popular wariness of big government during the worst years of economic decline in American history.

The opposition to tax resistance was formidable on several fronts. Campaigns by government employees, interested in keeping their jobs, created tremendous peer and political pressures to maintain or increase financing for public works. New programs, especially at the Federal level, undermined the strength of some tax protesters’ arguments by providing ways to circumvent accepted methods of financing. Some private institutions stood against tax resistance because of financial interests. Most notably, banks and other holders of municipal bonds formed their own campaigns or joined with government officials to quell the wave of protest.

The controversy became heated on the academic level, too. Experts in public finance and administration had become accepted players on the political scene in the first two decades of the 1900s, as universities established curricula for the study of public administration. These experts, specially trained in bureaucratic management, supposedly were essential for government to operate efficiently. The notion of a streamlined bureaucracy run by professional political scientists did much to blunt the popular call for economy in government.

The anti-tax, anti-big-government movement of the ‘30s also faced opposition in the courts. In Chicago, the tax resistance movement was led by the Association of Real Estate Taxpayers (ARET). However, Beito points out, “As dependents on tax money, politicians and jurists alike shared much common interest in destroying ARET, and virtually none in protecting it.” In the heyday of the tax revolt, ARET banked everything on a court battle over the legality of tax legislation. Their case petered out, hung up on technicalities.

The revolt against taxes and big government waned after 1933. Beito ascribes this loss of impetus to several factors, but mostly to the inability of the separate tax resistance groups to join together ideologically and organizationally. “In general,” he writes, “the tax resisters of the 1930s and their later anti-New Deal incarnations lacked a focused ideological program.” Locational and logistical problems, differences of opinion, infighting, and general uncertainty under poor economic conditions also contributed to their lack of focus. In addition to the forces of reaction that opposed the tax revolt—liberal intellectuals, government agencies, and private organizations with political incentives to perpetuate public programs—these internal problems dragged the tax protest movement into oblivion.

By the onset of World War II, the tax revolt as an organized campaign had virtually disappeared, but its fundamental ideas remained. As Beito con-dudes, “. . . many . . . who participated in the tax revolt and anti-New Deal causes looked on the issue of the individual versus the paternalistic state as timeless and relevant to any society. They saw these questions as worthy of consideration on their own terms and not merely as alternative strategies to carry out shared capitalist goals.” The tax revolt did not succeed, but the concepts it embodied—limited, representative government, private property rights, individualism, and volun-tarism-have endured.

Mr. Helstrom is general manager of Libertarian Press, Spring Mills, Pennsylvania.

  • Carl Helstrom is the current Chairman of State Policy Network. He is Executive Director of The JM Foundation and the Milbank Foundation for Rehabilitation in Princeton, New Jersey. A graduate of Grove City College (Grove City, PA), he worked with free enterprise education and research organizations for more than ten years before becoming a consultant to several private foundations and joining JM and Milbank in 1997.

    Carl is also a Trustee of the A. P. Kirby Jr. Foundation in Mendham, NJ and a Director of The Roe Foundation of Greenville, SC. He and his wife, Jane, have three sons.