Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Bearer-Friend Presents Poll Taxes, Revisited Today At Northwestern

Jeremy Bearer-Friend (George Washington; Google Scholar) presents Poll Taxes, Revisited at Northwestern today as part of its Advanced Topics in Taxation Colloquium hosted by Gregg Polsky:

Bearer-Friend (2021)In the United States, the term “poll tax” conjures a very specific historical episode: the use of tax policy to prevent voting by Black citizens. While “poll tax” is an accurate descriptor of these taxes, poll taxes have a much more expansive history within the twentieth century.

Following in the rich tradition of comparative tax scholarship that looks at multiple jurisdictions to arrive at broader tax policy conclusions, this Article examines four distinct poll taxes applied by Anglophone governments in the twentieth century. After introducing the statutory text, design features, and democratic context of each of these twentieth century poll taxes, the Article makes three original claims about poll taxes.

First, my comparative research on twentieth century poll taxes reveals how universal language in tax statutes is used to effectively target political enemies. 

By contrasting two poll taxes where race, ethnicity, or ancestry are explicitly mentioned in the law with two poll taxes where there is no mention of race, ethnicity, or ancestry, I uncover that the poll taxes that do not mention specific political targets can be equally effective—if not more effective—at achieving discriminatory goals than poll taxes that specify their targets. These tax policy lessons about the use of universal language for the purpose of political targeting are generalizable to other forms of taxation other than poll taxes.

Second, twentieth century poll taxes have an inconsistent relationship to voting. By examining poll taxes applied in nondemocracies where taxpayers did not have the right to vote, in democracies where taxpayers enjoyed full citizenship, and in partial democracies where voting rights were nominally available but substantively denied, the Article complicates our understanding of twentieth century poll taxes. Although poll taxes are not reducible to a “price on voting,” they reveal in all circumstances the role of taxation in shaping membership in a political community.

Third, I demonstrate that the oft repeated claim in tax scholarship about the simplicity of poll taxes is false in all cases. This conclusion is important not because poll taxes are an imminent policy priority, but because it overturns a longstanding bias used to assess the simplicity of non-poll taxes. To the extent we believe in the fantasy of easily administered poll taxes, income taxes or wealth taxes are portrayed as comparatively complex. This administrability tradeoff does not actually exist. Poll tax administration is an enormously complex undertaking as measured across multiple definitions of complexity.

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