Tax revolts are interesting because taxation—a claim made upon the property of individuals—is one of the two distinguishing features of government, the other being its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Thus, when citizens rebel against taxes, their actions may represent something far more fundamental than when they reject other kinds of public policies. Tax revolts are also interesting because they seem to be ubiquitous. Peasant revolts against land taxes have been documented from medieval Japan (White 1995) to contemporary Africa (Kelsall 2000) and China (Bernstein and Lu 2003). In Europe, voters have rebelled against both British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax proposal that was regressive in incidence by bearing relatively more heavily on the poor than the wealthy (Burns 1992) and the progressive tax program of the Danish welfare state (Kirschelt 1997). And in the United States, the tax rebellion label has been applied to both the revolution of 1776, as illustrated by the Boston Tea Party, and the wave of tax reduction and tax caps adopted following California’s passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 (Sears and Citrin 1985).
Given the importance and ubiquity of tax revolts, it is not surprising that scholars have spent considerable time trying to explain why they occur. The very ubiquity of “tax revolts” suggests that not all of the events so labeled are the same kind of phenomenon. Therefore, no single explanation is likely to explain all tax revolts. Indeed, there seem to be several different kinds that vary in terms of the breadth of issues they address. At the narrowest level are voter rejections of specific referendum proposals to raise taxes or to adopt bond issues. In such cases, the issue is narrowly defined and the forces determining voters’ decisions are typically the same kinds of socioeco-nomic, attitudinal, and partisan variables found to be important in day-to-day politics (Cataldo and Holm 1983; Listhaug and Miller 1985). Thus, we do not need a special kind of explanation for some kinds of tax revolts. Indeed, it is not clear that such events constitute “revolts,” since voters are making their preferences heard on specific policies through routine mechanisms of political choice.
The tax revolt label, in contrast, usually refers to something more unusual or unexpected. In some cases, as in voter agitation over property-tax-assessing practices in California in the early 1970s, the focus of the tax revolt might still be narrowly defined as a tax issue, even if it was a somewhat unusual sort (Paul 1975). But in other cases, tax revolts may represent a more general challenge to the government in power, as seems to have been the case in Britain’s rejection of Thatcher’s regressive poll tax and the Danish People’s Party rejection of high levels of progressive taxation to support the welfare state. Even further, tax revolts may represent a rejection of the political regime itself, as some argue is the case with rural protests in China. In these broader episodes of tax revolution, taxes are merely the specific focus of a larger rebellion. Given this complexity, determining what citizens are saying when they revolt against taxes is easy neither for the politicians who must respond to rebellions or for scholars trying to explain them.
Perhaps the broadest and most unusual type of tax revolt occurred in the United States during the late 1970s and early 1980s, starting with the passage of California’s Proposition 13. This event was certainly unusual. Californians had rejected by large margins two similar proposals in the previous decade. And nationally, while no tax revolt referendum had passed prior to Proposition 13, none failed in the ensuing five years, and none were successful thereafter. Within a short period, more than one hundred scholarly papers appeared purporting to interpret what voters were saying to politicians. These explanations covered all of those noted earlier for other tax revolts, from a rejection of big government (Rabushka and Ryan 1982) to symbolic racism (Sears and Citrin 1985). But none proved capable of explaining the boom and bust cycle of the great American tax revolt (Lowery and Sigelman 1981). Or rather, all of these explanations were true to some degree. That is, the U.S. tax revolt was an unusual kind of comprehensive single-issue politics in which grievances of all kinds were linked to a single policy solution—limiting taxes (Lowery 1982). In effect, tax revolution was a magic bullet that would solve a problem, no matter what the problem was. Once the tenuous connection between the many different kinds of grievances motivating voters and the specific tax proposals before them became obvious, support for the movement collapsed.
Irrespective of their origin, the consequences of tax revolts can be significant. Thatcher left office shortly after the failure of her poll tax proposal. In Denmark, the tax revolt movement evolved into the Danish People’s Party, which has since taken a lead in promoting anti-immigration policies. In the United States, few tax revolt referendums actually cut taxes. Indeed, only one state followed California’s Proposition 13 by sharply cutting property taxes. The other nineteen state referendums passed during the tax revolt period imposed fiscal caps that set limits on the future growth of government. But nearly all state legislatures cut taxes during this period so that for the first time in decades aggregate state tax burdens actually declined for several years. And the results of tax-revolt-induced policies can sometimes be surprising. As yet, the fiscal caps adopted by the states have not seriously impinged on government spending, although they may do so in the future (Cox and Lowery 1990). As for the hundreds of tax cuts adopted by legislatures, their consequences were often surprising. State government budgets were, as expected, highly constrained for several years. But state taxes were also marginally less complex and more progressive and elastic after the tax revolt than before, something that neither supporters nor opponents of tax cut proposals had anticipated (Lowery 1986).
SEE ALSO American Revolution; Poll Tax; Protest; Social Movements; Taxation; Taxes; Taxes, Progressive; Taxes, Regressive
Bernstein, Thomas P. , and Xiaobo Lu. 2003. Taxation without Representation in Contemporary Rural China. New York: University of Cambridge Press.
Burns, Danny. 1992. Poll Tax Rebellion. Stirling, Scotland: AK Press.
Cox, James, and David Lowery. 1990. The Impact of Tax Revolt Era State Fiscal Caps. Social Science Quarterly 71: 492–509.
Kelsall, Tim. 2000. Governance, Local Politics and Districtization in Tanzania: The 1998 Arumeru Tax Revolt. African Affairs 99: 533–551.
Listhaug, Ola, and Arthur H. Miller. 1985. Public Support for Tax Evasion: Self-Interest or Symbolic Politics? European Journal of Political Research 13: 265–282.
Lowery, David. 1982. Interpreting the Tax Revolt: A Review of the Literature and an Alternative Explanation. State and Local Government Review 14: 110–116.
Lowery, David. 1986. After the Tax Revolt: Some Positive, If Unintended, Consequences. Social Science Quarterly 67 (4): 736–750.
Lowery, David, and Lee Sigelman. 1981. Understanding the Tax Revolt: Eight Explanations. American Political Science Review 75 (4): 963–974.
Paul, Diane. 1975. The Politics of the Property Tax. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
Rabushka, Alvin, and Pauline Ryan. 1982. The Tax Revolt. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institute.
Sears, David, and Jack Citrin. 1985. Tax Revolt: Something for Nothing in California. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
White, James. 1995. Ikki: Social Conflict and Political Protest in Early Modern Japan. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.