As U.S. presidential election campaigns heat up, candidates can expect an earful of complaints over taxes. Now a new study led by a Northern Illinois University sociologist argues that American middle-class hostilities toward the federal income tax follow a common discourse rooted in moral beliefs.
“We propose that everyday tax talk among the middle class is not simply about economics or free markets. Tax talk is morally charged,” NIU sociologist Jeffrey Kidder said.
“In this study, we demonstrate how people associate the income tax with a violation of the moral principle that hard work should be rewarded,” he added. “Our research has implications for how policymakers should frame fiscal issues. Because people intertwine fiscal issues with morality, approaches to tax policy that only emphasize economic benefits for the working and middle classes do not resonate with everyday understandings about what taxes mean to people.”
Kidder co-authored the study with sociologist Isaac William Martin of the University of California, San Diego. Their findings are published in the current online issue of the journal, Symbolic Interaction.
“Our research further suggests that when Americans lash out at ‘takeovers,’ ‘massive taxes’ and ‘bailouts,’ they are locating these fiscal issues within a more general cultural narrative of a hard-working middle class besieged on all sides,” Kidder said. In other words, their tax talk “is about dollars, but it is also about a moral sense of what is right.”
The researchers conducted 24 semi-structured, open-ended interviews with white Southerners who owned or managed small businesses—a demographic group that is typically anti-taxation. The interviews were conducted during the first quarter of 2009.
“Southerners, whites and small business owners are three groups generally known to be vocal in their opposition to taxes,” Kidder said. “We wanted to get a sense of how they talk about taxes in everyday life.”
The authors note that Americans are “famously hostile” to taxes but are not heavily taxed when compared to residents of other affluent democratic countries such as Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Yet taxes are a preeminent issue in domestic politics, as demonstrated by the attention afforded “Joe the Plumber” during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign and by the growth of the Tea Party movement in recent years.
So why do Americans feel so hostile to the income tax? Among the researchers’ findings:
- Interview respondents saw themselves as morally deserving and hard-working people, whereas they perceived a tax structure that benefits the idle poor and the idle rich.
“The deserving worker is imagined to be in a morally dominant position, but sandwiched between an economically more powerful group that manipulates the rules for its own benefit and a subordinate group that benefits from government spending but escapes taxation,” Martin said.
“In light of prior research, it is more noteworthy that hostility to recipients of government aid was not reserved for minorities and the poor,” he added. “Rich recipients of bailouts were also disparaged as people who did not deserve money because they did not work for it. In fact, conducting our interviews soon after the passage of TARP (Troubled Assets Relief Program) and during the growing controversies surrounding the ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), we actually heard more about the undeserving rich than the undeserving poor.”
- Respondents frequently associated their earliest memories of taxation with their first jobs, or wage labor, which in turn was associated with the absence of personal autonomy and dignity, or the ability to control one’s own time and work.
“Even though most young people are routinely exposed to various taxes as they grow up – the most obvious being sales taxes on purchases—when we asked people to discuss their first memory of taxation they discussed their first paycheck,” Kidder said. “This symbolic connection between being a taxpayer and lacking autonomy, we believe, is essential to making sense of Americans’ tax talk more generally.”
“In contrast, when we asked our respondents to name ‘the best thing about being an entrepreneur,’ most of them clearly interpreted this as an invitation to talk about being an entrepreneur as opposed to being an employee,” Martin added. “Although their answers could have stressed the excitement of competition or the profit opportunities available to creative entrepreneurs, few touched on these issues. By far the most common response was an answer about personal autonomy – in the sense of self-direction and self-determination.”
- Hard work was viewed as a virtue, and respondents didn’t like idea of being taxed while they work, instead speaking in favor of a flat tax on consumption. “Tax whatever,” one respondent told the researchers. “Don’t take my paycheck.”
“Respondents didn’t want the fruits of their labor taken away directly at the point of production,” Martin said.
“Although we did not ask our respondents to propose an alternative tax, most of them did so spontaneously, and they generally proposed a flat-rate tax on consumption as an improvement over the existing graduated personal income tax,” Martin added. “They favored consumption taxes because they saw a tax on consumption – as opposed to a tax on earnings – as a tax that did not punish virtue. They also favored a ‘flat tax’ because they thought its simplicity would not reward sophisticated cheaters. Such talk is not about individual self-interest, but about our respondents’ sense of the proper relations among groups.”
Jeffrey Kidder is an assistant professor of sociology at Northern Illinois University. He is an ethnographer interested in how people construct and maintain meaning in everyday life. His most recent work is about the occupational subculture of bicycle messengers, “Urban Flow: Bike Messengers and the City“ (Cornell University Press, 2011).
Isaac Martin is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. He has helped develop the new subfield fiscal sociology. He is the author of “The Permanent Tax Revolt: How Property Tax Transformed American Politics” (Stanford University Press, 2008), numerous journal articles, and co-editor of “The New Fiscal Sociology: Comparative and Historical Approaches to Taxation” (Cambridge University Press, 2009).