The Progressive Income Tax and the Joy of Spending Other People’s Money
APRIL 21, 2011 by BURTON FOLSOM
On August 31, 1910, Teddy Roosevelt traveled to Kansas to make a stirring speech in support of a federal income tax. “The really big fortune,” Roosevelt said, “the swollen fortune by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes.”
Those two sentences helped focus the Progressive worldview. First, the United States needed an income tax to capture large chunks of revenue. Second, someone who had a large fortune, “by the mere fact of its size,” had to be treated differently from other wealth holders. Property rights became variable. One group would be treated one way, other groups would be treated another way. Third, the nation needed a “graduated income tax” to redistribute wealth from the haves to the have-nots. The new tax slogan would be “ability to pay.”
Author Delos Kinsman, writing while Roosevelt was president, said, “Individuals should contribute to the support of the government according to ability.” And “income is the most just measure of that ability.” Enlightened leaders like Teddy Roosevelt would redistribute wealth in the national interest.
Roosevelt’s thinking was a profound change from the views of the Founders. To them, government existed to protect property, not redistribute it. Americans had a right to pursue life, liberty, and property, not an entitlement to it. Thus the Founders never considered raising revenue through an income tax, least of all a graduated one. They wanted consumption taxes—levies on imports or on luxury goods. Why? Because, as Alexander Hamilton said in Federalist 21, “The amount to be contributed by each citizen will in a degree be at his own option, and can be regulated by an attention to his resources.”
Hamilton added, “If duties are too high, they lessen the consumption; the collection is eluded; and the product in the treasury is not so great. . . . This forms a complete barrier against any material oppression of the citizens by taxes of this class, and is itself a natural limitation of the power of imposing them.”
American law also reinforced the use of consumption taxes. “All duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States,” the Constitution reads. What could be more uniform than Congress’s first excise tax of seven cents a gallon on all whiskey produced in the United States?
Not Good Enough
Progressives, however, disliked consumption taxes as the major source for revenue. They were too small, too cumbersome to collect, and sometimes too regressive—wealth never properly redistributed itself through consumption taxes. Taxes on whiskey, tobacco, and imported olives from Spain shifted very little, if any, wealth from rich to poor. In 1913 the House Ways and Means Committee observed that federal revenue rested “solely on consumption. The amount each citizen contributes is governed, not by his ability to pay taxes, but by his consumption of the articles needed.” Swollen fortunes, as Roosevelt might say, went untaxed and became more swollen while some immigrants lived in poverty.
The Sixteenth Amendment was ratified in 1913, giving Congress the “power to lay and collect taxes on incomes from whatever source derived.” It did not rule out “ability to pay” as the basis for the levy. The amendment became law just as Woodrow Wilson was coming into the presidency. As a Progressive, Wilson wanted to start small, establish a precedent, and then increase rates over time. Under the new tax law, exemptions were so high that few Americans earned enough to pay any tax. Rates started at 1 percent and rose slowly to a high of 7 percent on all income over $500,000.
Progressives easily sold this tax plan to the voters. Fewer than one American family in 100 paid anything, but politicians could promise audiences that they might receive benefits from the revenue. And who would dare to suggest that billionaire John D. Rockefeller did not have the ability to pay 7 percent of his huge income to the government?
Ability to Pay
Yet that raises an interesting question. At what tax rate did Rockefeller, or other wealthy men, cease to have the ability to pay? If they could pay 7 percent, could they pay 15? Apparently so, because in 1916 Wilson and Congress raised the top rate to 15 percent. Unlike with a consumption tax, under the income tax politicians judge ability to pay and they choose the rates they think rich people can afford. If politicians choose rates too high they may lose the support of the rich, but they may gain support of those larger groups receiving subsidies from the tax revenue. If wealth really needs to be redistributed, should we trust people to do it with their own money or politicians with other people’s money?
Rockefeller, for example, was the best and cheapest oil refiner in the world. His charitable giving included the Erie Street Baptist Church, a cure for meningitis, and funding for Tuskegee Institute. That was how he redistributed his own wealth. Andrew Carnegie, the steel baron, built libraries, and banker Andrew Mellon built the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. In the political realm, President Franklin Roosevelt supported high taxes and gave subsidies to silver miners, farmers, and the Tennessee Valley Authority to make cheap electric power.
Charitable givers and politicians both pursue their self-interest, but the politician’s self-interest includes winning votes. That means, if possible, channeling subsidies to voting groups to win reelection at the expense of taxpayers in general. Rockefeller’s gifts to Tuskegee did not cost anyone but him any money. FDR’s subsidy to silver miners, by contrast, cost millions of taxpayers small amounts of tax revenue. It helped FDR carry several western states each time he ran for president. His redistribution efforts were essential to his being reelected.
Thus U.S. politicians had incentives to steadily increase the income tax in the 1900s. The top rate went from 7 to 15 percent in Wilson’s first term. World War I took it over 60, then over 70 percent. It didn’t drop below 50 percent until 1924, and was about 25 percent the rest of the decade. The rate rose to 63 percent in 1932 under Herbert Hoover and then 79 percent in 1935. The World War II years pushed it over 80 percent, and in 1945, FDR’s last year in office, the top was 94 percent on all income over $200,000. Wealthy people apparently had a very high ability to pay, and politicians had a very high desire to fight wars and win elections.