- Reforming the Tax State: Taxation and democracy in a transatlantic perspective France-USA (1880S–1930S)
This article highlights the recent historiographical revisions that have led historians on both sides of the Atlantic to develop innovative and refreshing views on state-building and state-society relationships through a comparative study of tax reform in France and the United States at the turn of the twentieth century*. Taxation offers a good case study because it deals with the power of the state, its capacity to act upon and shape society, and provides information about the way it is perceived by citizens, as Joseph Schumpeter summed up in his famous statement (1918). Taxation is a useful vantage point from which we can observe the intermingling of political ideals, social forces and state-building processes.
I would like to focus on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period when the meaning, the form, and the level of taxation was completely transformed on both sides of the Atlantic. [End Page 71]
The United States and France adopted income taxation in 1913 and 1914, after many years of political dispute and intellectual controversy. The implementation of progressive taxation marked a significant shift in the history of the two states, as it reinforced their financial capacities and allowed them to set up new policies. The nature of state activity was greatly altered by this reform, as well as the relationships between citizens and public administration. World War I produced a significant increase in tax burdens (up to 20 % of GDP in the 1920s) and paved the way for the implementation of interventionist policies. In spite of their various peculiarities, France and the United States were facing the same global challenges (industrialization, democratization, war) and were affected by the same intellectual debates. However, this story is not only comparative but also connected, since transnational and national factors worked in close interaction.
Comparison, I will argue, is useful because it helps us move beyond the political myths and historiographical routines through which we are accustomed to thinking. By establishing a dialogue between recent developments in French and American historiographies on tax reform, I would like to stress how important it is to deconstruct the traditional opposition between a “weak” American state, on the one hand, and a “strong” French state, on the other hand. By looking at taxation, we arrive at a very different picture of how the state really worked in the two countries. For most of the twentieth century, the US relied on a steep and efficient system of direct taxation, whereas France never succeeded in lowering the weight of taxation on goods and payroll taxes (Morgan & Prasad, 2009). This does not mean that the American state was more efficient or powerful than its French counterpart. However, it reveals the political deals and practical arrangements that were used to overcome resistance and build a taxpaying culture. It thus invites us to set aside exceptionalist accounts of the state and analyse these two democratic experiences. This article aims at highlighting the common features of a history of the state in the specific field of taxation, and at shedding new light on the rise and transformation of democracy on both sides of the Atlantic.
The article is divided into four parts. It begins with a general summary of recent reappraisals of the state. It continues by arguing that tax reform at the beginning of the twentieth century should be [End Page 72] analyzed in a transnational context. From this, we see that diverging patterns resulted from differences in the political economy of tax reform: the social groups campaigning for income taxation were different on both sides of the Atlantic. Finally, it argues that France and the US share a common history of tax resistance, which had deep consequences on democratic practices and cultures throughout the century.
The “weak” American state vs. the “strong” French state?
The way American and French historians look at the state has been deeply revised since the 1990s. Following the seminal works of various political scientists published in the 1980s (Skowronek, 1982; Evans et al., 1985), most American historians have turned their back on the very idea of a “stateless...