Friday, March 24, 2017

Kornhauser on Taxing Bachelors

Marjorie E. Kornhauser, Tulane University School of Law, has posted Taxing Bachelors in America: 1895-1939:
The Bachelor's Ideal (NYPL)
Bachelor taxes have existed across the globe and throughout millennia. In modern income taxes, they occur only indirectly, as by-products of favorable exemptions and tax rates for married couples. However, in prior centuries—even the 20th century—bachelor taxes existed as direct, explicit taxes levied on bachelors as bachelors. From 1895 through 1939, American municipalities and states proposed these taxes with surprising frequency and newspapers consistently reported on them as well as on foreign bachelor taxes.

Although often greeted with hilarity and rarely passed, explicit bachelor taxes during this period were motivated by serious concerns. The need for revenue was one reason these taxes were proposed. It was not, however, the only—or even the major—reason.

This paper suggests that social unease was the primary motivation for American bachelor taxes in this period. Decades of industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and increased consumerism had created social tensions and dislocations by radically altering everyday living patterns and basic social institutions. The bachelor tax proposals and discussions during this period expressed many people’s discomfort with the changes. Since they believed marriage was the foundation of society and American democracy, they perceived any threat to marriage as threatening the fabric of America. Consequently, they viewed bachelor taxes as a remedy for the moral decay of the nation. In actuality, the taxes were mainly expressive in nature. Not only did most of them fail to pass, but even if they did pass, they were largely ineffective methods to increase marriages, as some contemporaries noted.

The demise of explicit bachelor taxes did not end concerns about marriage and the moral state of society. These same concerns were part of the debates about mandatory joint returns in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Similarly, they remain an important element of recent debates about marriage penalties and the tax treatment of families.