Although that tax and a later one in 1894 were challenged as unconstitutional, the issue was settled in 1913 with the 16th Amendment, which changed the Constitution specifically to allow income taxes.
The income tax in 1913 was nothing like the one we know today. It was a flat 1 percent on income over $3,000, topping out at 7 percent for earnings above $500,000. Of course, most Americans earned a lot less than $3,000 in 1913, when you could buy a pound of sirloin steak for 24 cents.
Today a pound of sirloin steak is enough to make you swear off red meat, and the income tax is enough to make you swear, just generally.
The U.S. government now lays claim to as much as 39.6 percent of the income of individuals in the highest of seven brackets, and our corporate tax rate is 35 percent, among the highest in the world. The tax code is ornamented with multitudes of rewards and punishments, the result of a century of political deal-making for the benefit of various constituencies and the promotion of assorted goals.
The federal income tax has become a massive weapon of control over the lives of the American people, exactly the opposite of what the framers of the Constitution intended. With outrageously high tax rates, the government can force people or businesses to “voluntarily” take actions that will reduce their taxes. This neatly sidesteps the constitutional limits on the federal government’s power and makes your life the plaything of elected politicians.
As the tax plans of the 2016 presidential candidates are released, watch for the motive of the proposed changes. Are they designed to increase your freedom or to increase the government’s management of your freedom?
Dr. Ben Carson has proposed a flat tax of 10 percent to 15 percent. Score that as an increase to freedom. With a flat tax, the government has no say in what you do with your money.
Donald Trump has proposed a top tax rate of 25 percent, which begins at $150,000 of personal income, and a tax rate of 15 percent for all business income. His business tax rate would apply to people who work freelance, own a small business or otherwise derive income from business activity instead of wages. Trump’s plan includes a tax rate of zero for income up to $25,000 for single filers and $50,000 for married couples filing jointly. Score the plan as an increase to freedom, with bonus points for recognizing how many people are now independent contractors instead of employees.
Bernie Sanders would increase the death tax from 40 percent on estates worth over $5 million to 65 percent on estates worth more than $3.5 million. Score that as a reduction in freedom. The money has already been taxed, and the choice of what to do with it after death rightfully belongs to the person who owns it.
Hillary Clinton would raise the tax rate on short- and medium-term capital gains from the current top rate of 23.8 percent to between 24 and 39.6 percent. She says “short-termism” is bad for the economy and hurts workers. Score that as a reduction in freedom, moving us further down the road of government interference in our personal and business decisions.
Tax-reform ideas are a window into a candidate’s philosophy of government. How much power should Washington have over our decisions? More? Less? All? None?
Once, these questions were debated in a constitutional convention. Today they’re tax proposals.