Grover and Godwin

By Sam Brunson

Over the weekend, tax opponent extraordinaire and Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist said …

Well, I’ll let him speak for himself:

In two follow-up tweets (here and here), he clarified and doubled-down on his position: essentially, he argues that (a) without the 16th Amendment, the country couldn’t have enacted an income tax, (b) without an income tax, we couldn’t have afforded to enter World War I, (c) if we hadn’t entered the war, the Versailles Treaty wouldn’t have happened,[fn1] and (d) without the Versailles Treaty, World War II, with all of its attendant evils, wouldn’t have happened.[fn2]

It’s kind of an elegant but-for causal link, but one that strikes me as utterly specious, for a number of reasons. Of course, while the History Channel was on constantly at my home while I was growing up, as we all know, its primary focus was always WWII. So I’m not a historian of WWI, but here are some of the reasons I think his argument is absurd:

(1) First, I’ll agree that it would have been hard to scale up tariffs and excise taxes to pay for an expensive war. But, according to Bank, Stark, and Thorndike, our tariffs were failing anyway: 1914’s War Revenue Act was “designed to replace the revenues lost because of the effect of the war, and more particularly German submarines, on imports.”[fn3] And that’s before we were in the war: where there are no imports, there are no tariffs.

(2) Even after the government decided to expand the income tax to fund war efforts, there was a lag between when the increased tax would produce revenue and when the U.S. entered the war. The government issued war bonds to meet its needs during that time.[fn4] Could we have borrowed to fund the war efforts? I don’t know: borrowed money has to be repaid, and lenders would undoubtedly be sensitive to whether tariffs and excise taxes could produce the income necessary to repay the bonds, with interest.

(3) Even without the 16th Amendment, it’s possible that Congress could have passed an income tax once we got into the war. I mean, the income tax was not a foreign concept: Britain adopted one in about 1799, and the North funded the Civil War largely through income taxation. And since that tax’s expiration, some legislators had been trying to revive it. Certainly, the WWI-era Congress would have had to contend with the Supreme Court’s decision in Pollock, but given the exigencies of war, who knows how a war challenge to the income tax would have come out.

(4) The strangest thing, to me: I get the impression that underlying Norquist’s position is the assumption that, other than the elimination of WWII, the world (or at least the United States and its place in the world) would be roughly the same as it is today. In fact, he almost explicitly says that:

Now, I’m not going to argue his assertion directly (okay, one thing: by “historians,” I assume he means some historians; again, I’m no expert, but I suspect that that position is a distinctly minority one), but I suspect, contrary to his assertion, that, had the US not entered WWI, the world as we know it would be significantly different. Especially if the US had developed in an isolationist direction, without the revenue sources to become a modern superpower. Would that world be better or worse than today? I’m a big enough fan of the US to believe that it would, in many ways, be worse, but who knows. What I do know, though, is that it’s naive to posit that, without the federal income tax and the US’s entry into WWI, we’d have all the good things we have today without any of the bad things.

Which is to say, even if the 16th Amendment were the proximate cause of Hitler’s rise (which, btw, it’s not), we can’t pretend that without it, the world would be puppies and roses.

(Put differently: as Billy Braden said on Twitter:

Actually, Braden’s tweet made me think, can we write 16th Amendment fan fiction? I’d love to see it in the comments, or on Twitter; if you do write Twitter fan fic, if you don’t mind hashtagging it #16AmendFanFic, I’d be forever grateful!)


[fn1] (and, I guess, Germany would have won?)

[fn2] Thus, Godwin’s Law, and the post’s title. Query, though, whether it’s Godwin’s law when the conversation starts with a Hitler analogy.

[fn3] War and Taxes at 52.

[fn4] Id. at 58.

2 thoughts on “Grover and Godwin

  1. Interesting post. We financed the Civil War, though, and wasn’t that much much bigger as a fraction of the US economy than WWI?
    The USSR was formed before the end of WWI, though, so American entry isn’t a cause of that. I guess we might predict that Imperial Germany would have double-crossed Lenin and overthrown him once WWI ended, if it had been a draw or Germany had won. It’s fair to say we wouldn’t have Hitler, I think, but to get from Allied victory to Hitler required a lot of incompetent steps by Britain and France that can’t be blamed on the US income tax. If we want to play that game, there’s better reason blame the New York Stock Exchange, without which we wouldn’t have had the Great Crash and Depression and Hitler.

    Liked by 1 person

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