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book spotlight: the permanent tax revolt by isaac martin

Isaac Martin’s “The Permanent Tax Revolt” will likely become a standard account of the movement to limit taxes in California and other states. Starting from a social movement perspective, Martin gives a succinct but highly insightful account of why there was a sudden outburst of radical anti-property tax sentiment in the 1970s and how it changed American politics.

Martin makes a few key claims about the anti-tax movement that movement scholars should heed. First, the movement was not initiallty tied to any single political ideology. Tax revolt began when various states decided to end the ad hoc valuation of property and insist that taxes be levied in accordance to market values. The problem? People really can’t handle abrupt market-driven tax hikes, especially if they have fixed incomes, like the elderly or the poor. Thus, it was common for conservatives, liberals, and moderates to adopt the issue as their own. It was only later that people perceived property tax revolt as a conservative issue. Second, the movement was a response to “good government liberalism,” not a repressive regime. The issue was that ad hoc property valuation created a class of people with a strong interest in the status quo. Standardized valuations threatened that and drew people together. Martin’s other main point is that American federalism prevented top down reforms and permitted tax limitations via referenda, which were favored by political conservatives who wanted to curtail the state.

It’s a really sharp book, so let me conclude this short review by drawing out something that I wish had gotten more attention. Martin makes a big deal about the trans-ideological character of the movement. That returns us to a political science view, which emphasizes interest groups focused on specific policy issues. The essence of the poli sci view is Weberian – issues can define groups, in addition to ideology. Here, as long as you had sympathetic elderly people who couldn’t keep up with taxes, it was relatively easy to keep the movement together.

Martin also points out that anti-tax leaders had experience in 60s movements, which suggests a merging of repertoire. The anti-tax revolt case may be unusual in that it was a classic interest group whose repertoire resembled a movement. This pushes us back to an idea that I’ve tossed around – that there is no solid distinction between political science “interest group” and sociological “social movement.” It’s a continuum defined by ideology, goals, and tacts. Perhaps one might say that the anti-taxers were a classic interest group that got drawn a little closer to scruffy movements. If so, we have to work harder at aboloshing these categories.

Written by fabiorojas

June 10, 2008 at 12:05 am

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  1. […] Fabio Rojas points us to a study of the US tax revolt movement, Isaac Martin’s The Permanent Tax Revolt. […]

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  2. […] with a few critiques of an otherwise solid book. Perhaps my biggest beef is same that I had with Isaac Martin’s good book on the tax revolt. We really need to expand movement theory with insights from research in soc and poli sci on […]

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  3. […] Isaac Martin: The Permanent Tax Revolt […]

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  4. […] focus on consumer protection groups as a prime driver of economic policy change in the 1970s. See Isaac Martin’s book on tax revolts. Second, this is a very anti-Krugman version of recent economic history. It wasn’t income tax […]

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