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It's Not Just About Money

By: Glenn Ellmers
July 23, 1999

Most Americans know the income tax is expensive, intrusive, and highly politicized. Not so well known, perhaps, is that this was intentional. To understand why, look no further than the political origins of the 16th Amendment.

The very first year of the income tax, 1913, US Senator Elihu Root wrote to a friend:

I guess you will have to go to jail. If that is the result of not understanding the Income Tax law I shall meet you there. We will have a merry, merry time, for all of our friends will be there. It will be an intellectual center, for no one understands the Income Tax except persons who have not sufficient intelligence to understand the questions that arise under it.

Root's letter to his friend was only half in jest. He saw what Americans today have forgotten: that the original Constitution had prohibited a federal income tax for very good reasons.

Root was one of the most prominent and learned political figures of his day. He had served as Secretary of War under President William McKinley, and Secretary of State under Teddy Roosevelt. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912 for his diplomatic work. He was also a staunch opponent of the Progressive movement — the liberal reform project of the early 1900s that ushered in the 16th Amendment, authorizing the income tax.

The passage of the 16th Amendment represented a drastic break from the original purpose and limits of the Constitution, and radically changed the relationship between citizens and their government — for the worse.

First, the income tax authorized something that would have appalled the Constitution's framers: mandatory, detailed files on all aspects of citizens' finances. Root described such government power as "exceedingly drastic and injurious."

The income tax's intrusiveness, and the ease with which it could be manipulated for political purposes, fit with Progressives' understanding of a radically expanded and ambitious role for government. For the framers of the Constitution, and for Root, government existed to perform a few, limited functions. Government did not require too much money, because it did not do too much; and its relationship to the people was primarily to protect individual rights. The day-to-day life of citizens would be mostly in the private realm: working, going to church, raising a family.

The Progressives had much grander utopian visions for what government could accomplish. Herbert Croly — one of the leading Progressive intellectual figures — wrote that the goal of government was the creation of "a higher type of individual and associated life," and ultimately, "an aspiration toward human perfectibility." The private realm was not something to be protected, but an obstacle to government's real purpose: working upon citizens, rather than for them. Thus, the Progressive agenda, Croly explained in 1914, meant that government could not "confine its exercise within the limits defined by certain rules, but frankly [must] reorganize the state."

A project like that takes money. So the income tax was necessary to fund the huge apparatus of social and welfare programs.

But the redistribution of wealth was only a part of this plan. More important, it was necessary to break down private attachments and private institutions, so that a centralized government would be free to act directly upon individuals. The first and foremost of these private attachments, of course, was the family. That is why many Progressives also advocated a steep inheritance tax. Rather than parents working and saving to make a better life for their children, government would become the caretaker and provider.

Such a massive undertaking would also require an army of centrally — located experts, namely the IRS and the whole federal bureaucracy. And these experts would need to know the material they were working with — namely, us. So the income tax was a convenient way to amass vast amounts of information, not just on incomes, but on occupations, family size, consumer habits, investment portfolios, charitable activity and the living arrangements of every American.

So, as Americans bear the largest tax burden since World War II, it is important to recall that it is not just the amount of our income tax that is the problem, but the utopian vision it was created to fund. Elihu Root recognized this when he observed:

This country is too great, its population too numerous, its interests too vast and complicated to be governed as to the great range of our daily affairs, from one central power in Washington. [D]o not let us in our anxiety for efficiency cast away, break down, reject, those limits which save us to the control of our homes, of our own domestic affairs, and of our own local governments. For there, in the last analysis must be formed the character of free, independent, liberty-loving citizens.