Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Christopher W. Schmidt (Chicago-Kent), How Tax Law Made Modern America (Jotwell), reviewing Ajay K. Mehrotra (Indiana), Making the Modern American Fiscal State: Law, Politics, and the Rise of Progressive Taxation, 1877-1929 (Cambridge University Press, 2013):
This book serves as a model for legal historians who are looking to integrate fine-grained, nuanced analyses of historical events and actors with the kind of big-picture ideas that most readily engage our fellow legal scholars. This is a book that illuminates a fundamental transformation of the American state, a transformation in whose shadow we obviously live today. This is also a book that takes ideas quite seriously. (Mehrotra begins one of his chapters with John Maynard Keynes’s quotation about “[p]ractical men” unknowingly being “the slaves of some defunct economist.”) But this book is not, in the end, a work of intellectual history or political theory. It is history in which ideas are important because they moved the machinery of politics and law. Understanding the roots of the policy changes examined in this book requires careful attention to the larger ideas that made the policy seem so urgent and necessary. We are thus witnesses to the complex interplay of ideology, legal development, politics, and social activism. Out of all this, as this book so effectively and smartly demonstrates, arose a new set of legal norms, political expectations, and societal sensibilities.
One of the most important contributions of Making the Modern American Fiscal State is the way in which Mehrotra conceptualizes the very idea of taxes. Taxing, in Mehrotra’s account, was not just a tool for raising revenues to fund whatever policy the government in power favored. It was not just a neutral means to a contested, ideological end. Taxing policy was itself a statement of substantive ideology; it was a discourse through which Americans could talk about their vision of government and civic responsibility. “Fiscal citizenship” is the nicely evocative label Mehrotra attaches to this idea. This is a rich, compelling, and convincing framework through which to think about taxing. And it is a perfect vehicle for telling the story of the rise of progressive taxation and thus the formation of the modern American state.