Tuesday, October 10, 2023
Jeremy Bearer-Friend (George Washington; Google Scholar) presents Race-Based Tax Weapons, 14 U.C. Irvine L. Rev. __ (2023), at NYU today as part of its Tax Policy and Public Finance Colloquium hosted by Daniel Shaviro:
In the United States, the term “poll tax” often refers to a very specific tactic of white supremacy: 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 to illustrate a broad phenomenon I call “tax weapons”—the use of tax policy to harm political adversaries.
The primary contribution of this comparative research on twentieth century poll taxes is to further demonstrate how universal language in tax statutes can be used to effectively target political rivals, with a focus on the targeting of taxpayers by race, ethnicity, or ancestry. 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 targets can be equally effective—if not more effective—at achieving discriminatory goals than poll taxes that specify their targets.
These insights about the use of nominally universal tax policies for the purpose of targeting political rivals informs the analysis of tax policy beyond just poll taxes.