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.