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Tax Resistance: A Global History?
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Tax Resistance:
A Global History?

In 1951, a group of suburban housewives living in Marshall, Texas, known as the “Marshall Housewives,” filed a complaint against the federal government arguing that it had no authority “to force American housewives to become tax collectors.” Under a 1950 amendment, domestic employees owed one percent of their salaries to Social Security and their employers owed a matching amount. The Marshall Housewives started a judiciary action against the tax, which went on for years until it eventually failed, when in 1954 the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. One year later, in rural France, small shopkeepers also protested against the Social Security tax. Farmers joined the protest to denounce the fact that they paid taxes but never received any benefits. As one of their pamphlets explained: “Family allowances, none; we just have to pay. Social insurance, none. No guarantee on life accidents. Poor retirement benefits, which won’t be enough to allow us to pay for hospitals in our old days.” In a few months, a social movement named poujadisme tapped into such local protests under the guidance of a right-wing leader named Pierre Poujade. 1

Such protests were part of a larger and global movement of protests against Keynesian policies in the world after World War II. They were both a political and social movement, which aimed at redefining postwar social contracts. If tax resisters were depicted as eccentric mavericks or crazy conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic, they displayed tactics and strategies of mobilization to reinvent the links between citizens and their institutions. Moreover, such resistance revealed the social and economic transformation of French and American societies with diverse consequences. In France, Poujade’s followers felt excluded from the ongoing modernization of France, whereas in the United States conservatives were part of the new, modern middle-class that was spreading into the postwar affluent suburbs. [End Page 301]

As these examples display, tax resistance is always a social act, which enables social scientists to depict the social organizations of societies and their political fractures. A linear and teleological view of history tends to view tax resistance as the result of infrapolitics in ancient and early modern societies. Such a framework implies that opposition was soon to disappear with the creation of the modern and Weberian nation-state. Although it has roots in the premodern contentious repertoire, tax resistance is still at the core of modern debates on the future of democratic institutions and social solidarity. 2

This special issue is devoted to the very moment when tax consent is replaced by resistance and opposition. But why do people rebel against taxes? We tend to assume that most of the time citizens are good taxpayers, until they suddenly express their concerns when they feel that the principle of “ability to pay” is no longer respected. The story looks somewhat more complicated. Compliance, consent, and legitimacy have to be built up and cemented since people are not compliant by nature. Every state has to cope with it: nobody likes to pay taxes. As a result, each political regime has to make compulsory taxes acceptable, fair, and useful to the community. So resistance always involves a bargaining process. Most taxpayers comply with their fiscal obligations when they see the tax system as a fair exchange for private or collective goods. 3

However, norms of fair taxation have evolved and could lead taxpayers to oppose new taxes or collection processes. 4 Resistance then becomes horizontal, not vertical. Citizens start protesting when they realize that the tax burden is not equally shared among citizens, when the fiscal regime is suddenly seen as unfair and oppressive, when the old “tax the other fellow, but don’t tax me” argument is heard. At this moment, resistance derives from increasingly concrete concerns about taxes and is fueled by the way taxes are both collected and spent. Accusations of corruption or misdemeanors against tax collectors or politicians reinforce such critics. Their goal is not to abolish taxes but to obtain formal privileges or room for negotiation in the tax code. 5 Resistance is compounded by physical contact with tax agents, and resistance...