Politicians Through the Ages on Income Taxes

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With the busy tax-reporting season over, attorney Julian Block reflects on how politicians here and abroad historically have had differing opinions on taxing income from their constituents.

Senator Russell Long of Louisiana's definition of tax reform: "Don't tax you, don't tax me. Tax that fellow behind the tree."

Senator Steve Symms of Idaho: “When Congress talks of tax reform, grab your wallet and run for cover.”

It can prove difficult for revenue-hungry politicians to figure out when taxpayers have had enough. Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), who was a French statesman influential under King Louis XIV and served as Minister of Finance, came up with this succinct answer: “The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing.”

Colbert’s often-quoted observation elicited this response in The Wall Street Journal on July 28, 1982: “If geese are to be plucked with the least squawking, which is the aim of all taxation, the fatter ones will always tempt politicians more because they have more feathers and there are fewer of them to screech.”

Few politicians are willing to espouse tough love for themselves. One was Marcus Tullius Cicero, 143-106 B.C.E., the greatest Roman orator, and famous also as a philosopher. His recommendation: “The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt.”

Other politicians are able to be indifferent to hisses or squawks, especially those with dictatorial powers. From a 1923 speech before the Italian Senate by Prime Minister Benito Mussolini: “The government has been compelled to levy taxes which unavoidably hit large sections of the population. The Italian people are disciplined, silent, and calm. They work and know that there is a government which governs, and know, above all, that if this government hits cruelly certain sections of the Italian people, it does so not out of caprice, but from the supreme necessity of national order.”

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About Julian Block

Julian Block

Attorney and author Julian Block is frequently quoted in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. He has been cited as “a leading tax professional” (New York Times), an “accomplished writer on taxes” (Wall Street Journal), and “an authority on tax planning” (Financial Planning magazine). More information about his books can be found at julianblocktaxexpert.com

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