Of all the outrages that led to Americans organizing “tea parties” today to protest high taxes and unprecedented federal spending, the most serious and consequential has gone on the longest — and has been almost entirely unnoticed.
It is best explained by a Gallup poll released yesterday. According to the poll, 48 percent of Americans said their tax rates were “about right,” 46 percent said they were “too high,” and 3 percent said they were “too low.” On the income tax alone, 61 percent called the amount they had to pay this year “fair.”
The average state and local tax burden in the United States was 9.7 percent in 2008, according to the Tax Foundation. That means that on average every American paid 9.7 percent of his income in state and local taxes alone last year. On top of that, Americans paid federal income tax rates of between 10 percent and 35 percent. On top of that, many paid federal capital gains taxes, estate taxes, cigarette taxes, etc.
What so many Americans are calling “fair” is often between 20 percent and 45 percent of their income — not including taxes on capital gains, interest and other incidentals. President Obama wants to raise the highest federal bracket to 39 percent. If that happens, Americans earning more than about $373,000 a year will give to government roughly 50 percent of all they earn. In states such as New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and California, where such an income is not all that unusual for a dual-income couple, that already happens when all taxes are accounted for.
How did it become “fair” for an American family to give to government a third of its income? How did it become “fair” for an American family to give to government half of its income?
When Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765, Americans had never before experienced direct taxation. They rebelled. In 1767, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, which levied taxes on an array of British goods. The colonists responded by boycotting British imports. Parliament repealed most of the Townshend Acts in 1770 (except the tax on tea), and in 1773 passed the Tea Act, which essentially told Americans they had to buy their tea from the East India Company through government-approved merchants. Though the act actually lowered the cost of British tea, Americans were so outraged at Britain’s assertion of authority that they forbade tea-bearing ships from docking. And, of course, in Boston they threw 342 chests of tea into the harbor.
All of these taxes, by the way, were passed to finance the British Army. The newly independent United States taxed its people directly to pay off the war and ongoing conflicts with France, but in 1802, under President Jefferson, all direct taxation upon the American people was ended. That lasted for a decade, until we had to finance the War of 1812. That war was paid off by 1817, and Americans experienced no direct taxation from their federal government until 1861.
That means that “Manifest Destiny,” including James K. Polk’s war with Mexico, and the expansion of the country from coast to coast, was financed without a single direct federal tax being levied upon the American people.
The federal income tax imposed to finance the Civil War had two tax brackets — 3 percent and 5 percent — and was repealed in 1872. It remained off the books until 1913, when the 16th Amendment was ratified. The federal income tax rates in 1913 ranged from 1 percent to 7 percent. That highest rate applied to people earning $500,000 a year or more. Today, a married couple earning that much would pay a federal income tax rate of 35 percent, and with all taxes combined could pay more than half their income in taxes.
The greatest tax outrage in American history is Washington’s gradual convincing of the American people that giving so much of their income to the government is just and fair.
Our forefathers rebelled over taxes that amounted to pennies per item, and two centuries later we fork over 40 percent of our income and call it “fair.” The excise taxes and import duties that financed Washington for more than a century were not sustainable. A new tax system was needed. But in the century that followed its adoption, it changed the American people themselves.
Americans today are taxed at levels most of our forebears would have considered unthinkable. By our own nation’s historical standards, we are outrageously, insanely overtaxed. And yet we shrug our shoulders and say, well, at least we’re not France.
By the way, France’s top marginal tax rate is 40 percent. President Obama plans to raise our top marginal rate to 39 percent.
As Samuel Adams, organizer of the Boston Tea Party, said in his famous speech in Philadelphia in August of 1776, “When the spirit of liberty, which now animates our hearts and gives success to our arms, is extinct, our numbers will accelerate our ruin and render us easier victims to tyranny.”