The Consistency of Conservative Tax Policy

Kornhauser, Marjorie E. | March 1, 2014

Conservative tax arguments have been remarkably consistent in substance, style, and method for almost a century. Substantively, their tax policy consists of three claims: (1) an economic one that low taxes encourage economic growth and prosperity for all, (2)a legal– constitutional one that excessive federal spending and heavy taxes unbalance our federal form of government at best, and at worst unconstitutionally violate state rights, and (3) a patriotic claim that high tax-and-spend policies are un-American. This third, patriotic, claim is a major factor in conservatives’ remarkable success in selling their policy to the public and in the current political stalemate about taxation. The emotional aspect of patriotism inhibits rational discussion and limits the range of politically feasible solutions. This Article suggests that if conservatives would focus on their two substantive points, they would help create an atmosphere more conducive to the thoughtful tax discussion the country requires.

The Article illustrates conservatives’ consistency with an examination of the linked battles concerning income tax reduction and a veterans’ bonus that occurred between 1924 and 1936. This period had much in common with the present, including (1) the growth of government, (2) increased knowledge about human behavior, (3) the development of new mass media, (4)the use of the new media by organizations to disseminate their viewpoints to the public, (5) increased lobbying (at least partially due to the other factors), and (6) mounting concern that the lobbying was distorting the political process. Commentators, then and now, have noted that some organizations purporting to be broad-based civic groups providing neutral information are really vehicles through which small—sometimes wealthy—groups try to shape public opinion and thereby pressure Congress to adopt their self-interested viewpoint. This Article focuses on two groups—the National Economy League, a group active in the 1930s, and, to a lesser degree, the Citizens’ National Committee in the 1920s.