The Federal Retail Sales Tax That Wasn’t: An Actual History and an Alternate History

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The federal income tax did not become a mass tax until World War II. Although some form of mass federal taxation was imperative for the financing of the war, a mass income tax was not inevitable. But for the determined opposition of the Roosevelt administration, Congress would almost certainly have enacted a federal retail sales tax during the war–perhaps in addition to the conversion of the income tax to a mass tax, but perhaps as the only form of mass taxation aimed at paying for the war. This article describes the wartime debates among proponents of different methods of federal mass taxation–conversion of the income tax to a mass tax, enactment of a federal retail sales tax, or both. Following that description, the article considers the continuing impact of the wartime choice of the income tax as the only instrument of mass taxation. The article concludes that the use of the mass income tax--rather than the combination of an elite income tax and a mass retail sales tax (or value-added tax)–has made a significant difference in several areas, including: the distribution of the benefits of postwar tax cuts and the burdens of postwar tax increases; public perceptions of the nature of the relationship between taxpayers and the federal government; the proliferation of tax subsidies targeted at particular categories of nonbusiness expenditures, ranging from long-term care to hybrid cars; income support for low-wage workers with dependent children; and federal policy toward homeownership.