Tax, Order, and Good Government will become a cornerstone of new Canadian political history. Elsbeth Heaman has spent much time thinking about the state in recent years, publishing A Short History of the State in Canada with the University of Toronto Press in 2015, and in Tax, Order, and Good Government she offers an incredibly well-researched, thoughtful, nuanced, and densely argued study of debates about tax policy and its relationship to politics, culture, the economy, and society from Confederation to the introduction of the federal income tax in 1917.
Heaman begins by acknowledging that tax history is unlikely to immediately pique the interests of scholars and students. It should. Tax laws always raise important questions related to fairness, social and economic inequality, citizenship, and the role of the state. Heaman asserts that tax history gets at “important fissures and problems in early Canadian society” (3). Many of these fissures and problems will be familiar to historians of Canada, but Heaman suggests that tax history sheds new light on seemingly well-covered topics, such as Nova Scotia’s quest for better terms following Confederation, the National Policy tariff of 1879, and the 1917 federal election.
Heaman structures her book around two themes: (1) tax revolts that show the work of popular political agency and (2) the way taxes mediated poverty and wealth. Rather than offer an economic history of taxation, Heaman surveys the “conversations that Canadians had about taxation, understanding taxation as a place where political, social, economic, and cultural history intersected” (13). She argues that her work “recounts how politics became social politics” between 1867 and 1917, and she tracks the shift from “the constitutionalization of liberal ideas in the [End Page 300] bna Act to the last stand of that liberalism at the height of the First World War” (13). According to Heaman, this is a story of “how the liberal federal state was remade as an administrative state with a new commitment to socio-economic fairness, amidst other kinds of pressures that pulled it in different directions” (13).
The ambitiousness of Heaman’s project led her to employ a wide variety of primary and secondary sources. She draws from old and new literature on the history of the Canadian state, racial discrimination, and legal history, to note just a few examples. One odd omission in her endnotes is any reference to Ian McKay’s well-known “liberal order framework” article, even though Tax, Order, and Good Government deals extensively with debates about liberalism (Canadian Historical Review 81 (2000): 616–45). To help readers with the technical aspects of tax history, Heaman includes a helpful glossary.
Heaman makes several contributions to Canadian historiography, but let me mention just one here. In examining the background to the introduction of the federal income tax in 1917, Heaman devotes much attention to the movement to adopt a “single tax” on land values. The idea was that such a tax would return to the public the increased value of high density development. According to the advocates of the single tax, this was the value that was unearned by landlords. Heaman notes that the movement for a single tax system was incredibly popular and became a key part of the progressive movement. Canadian historians have given scant attention to the role of the single tax in national politics, but the popularity of the idea adds important context to the eventual passage of the federal income tax, which, according to Heaman, was not meant to be a temporary measure introduced to deal with wartime fiscal challenges, as is often thought. Instead, Heaman concludes that progressive tax reform “could not have come without the vibrant, eclectic tax reform movement that took shape across Canada, and the Atlantic world more generally,” such that when the “crucial moment of decision came, the arguments for progressive taxation were irresistible” (425).
Tax, Order, and Good Government is a smart and insightful study. It will find its way onto many graduate student reading lists...