October 28, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Anti-tax is anti-democracy

Joe Manchin has one foot in two worlds.

Image courtesy of Reuters.
Image courtesy of Reuters.

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I know you want to know if I know what US Senator Joe Manchin wants. I do not. I do know, however, that our national discourse over taxing and spending is so warped he opposes a so-called billionaire’s tax while favoring a tax on billionaires not called a billionaire’s tax. Such word games conceal the truth.

Taxes pay for a full and equal democracy.

This is not how the GOP would prefer we talk about taxes. They would prefer a national debate centering on individuals living an atomized existence, separate from and unequal to others, while encouraging individuals to think of themselves as “taxpayers” who are “liberated” from the moral obligations of fellowship, community and citizenship.

The government that Henry David Thoreau said would be better if it governed least was, to his way of thinking, an anti-democratic government.

There was a time when this perspective was thought radical — either it was a cover up for greed or for something more sinister. That’s why Ronald Reagan, before he was president, cited a widely admired transcendentalist writer to make that view seem respectable. In 1964, while stumping for conservative Barry Goldwater, Reagan said: “Henry David Thoreau was right: that government is best which governs least.”

Thoreau was right, but Reagan was wrong. That line comes from “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” (1849), in which Thoreau famously developed the principle of moral conscience superseding the citizen’s uncritical adherence to law. The occasion was Thoreau’s refusal to pay taxes he believed the government was using to fund imperial expansion, on the one hand, and advancing slavery, on the other. 

So the government that Thoreau said would be better if it governed least was, to his way of thinking, an anti-democratic government — a government that, before Abraham Lincoln became president, was not of, by and for the people but instead of, by and for the interests of proto-fascist slavers in the American south. That’s why Thoreau accepted prison time for failing to pay his taxes. He refused to be morally complicit in his government’s crimes against humanity.

Here’s the tip jar!

By the time Reagan stumped for Goldwater, the government had become of, by and for the people more completely than any time in the country’s history. By then, President Lyndon Johnson had signed into law the 1964 Civil Rights Act, followed by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, together representing American democracy in its fullest flower yet. This is the proper context for knowing what you need to know about anti-tax rhetoric, which struggled in the 1960s but has dominated our national discourse from the time of Reagan’s election through today. What you need to know is this: anti-tax is anti-democracy.

With the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it became illegal for the United States government to do what it had been doing since the American founding — treating non-white people, but especially Black people, as if they were not equal citizens fully and morally entitled to the same rights and privileges as their white counterparts. Of course, an equal democratic union did not sit well with some white people. 

Before 1964, anti-tax rhetoric was, to them, rich people bitching about paying their fair share. After 1964, it sounded different. It sounded, to them, like the very obscenely rich defending their “freedoms” and their “rights.” With enough time and effort, the anti-tax rhetoric of the very obscenely rich was no longer thought to cover up for greed or something sinister. It was thought downright principled. By standing against the government, and standing up for “taxpayers,” the GOP seemed to have a noble lineage going back to Henry David Thoreau.


Beneath the rhetoric was a belief long-standing and deeply rooted in the blood and soil of America — that nonwhite people, but especially Black people, don’t count in this experiment in self-rule. “The people” doesn’t include them. “The people” is us. A government treating them as equals to us, therefore, is not a government that “sovereign citizens” can support with their tax dollars in good conscience. The whole of the “conservative movement” in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, was a movement to defund a government that would not, because it could not, treat Black people like second-class citizens. A democratic government governing the least became the best of all governments.

That Joe Manchin is trying to have it both ways is, in a sense, not surprising. He has one foot in two worlds. A world that Reagan built in which billionaires are “job creators” who should not be “punished” for being successful. And a world being built right now, I think, on the ashes of Reagan’s in which billionaires are increasingly seen, for all the right reasons, as abominations offensive to all lovers of democracy.  

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  1. Bern on October 28, 2021 at 9:04 pm

    Hey John, thanks for this. Words have meaning, but context is everything. Hijacking Thoreau was vile (and Standard Operating Procedure for Reagan).

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