essays

May 1, 1978

Jarvis and the Tax Rebellion

“Howard Jarvis comes out of the old Liberty Amendment crew. He has all the virtues and flaws of such a right-wing group.”

We are on the edge of a nationwide tax revolt, and nothing better symbolizes it than the Jarvis-Gann tax limitation initiative on the California ballot this June. Property taxes have increased drastically in California over the past few years, and the people have had enough. So when Howard Jarvis, 75, head of the United Organization of Taxpayers, and Paul Gann, 65, head of People’s Advocate, another taxpayer organization, proposed their initiative a few months ago, they struck a nerve. In a few short weeks, they had collected over 1,500,000 signatures, more than any other ballot initiative ever.

The proposal is a tax-limitation plan not just with teeth, but with fangs. It would limit property taxes to one percent of market value, about one-fourth of the current statewide average; between $5 and $7 billion a year in property taxes would thus be cut back. Moreover, under the initiative, the legislature could not just vote for new taxes to replace that $7 billion. According to the New York Times, “it could vote new tax increases only by two-thirds vote. Special tax elections on the local level would require a two-thirds majority of the voters.”

Libertarians across the board have endorsed the initiative, from Murray Rothbard to Milton Friedman. In the view of LR, libertarians ought to give this proposal whatever support they can. This month, LR is running an interview with Jarvis by Contributing Editor Jeff Riggenbach. But there is reason for us to comment on Jarvis’s strategy.

Howard Jarvis comes out of the old Liberty Amendment crew. He has all the virtues and flaws of such a right-wing group. On the one hand, he is iconoclastic and brutally honest about the state government. On the other, he has, unfortunately, linked himself with the worst elements of the Right in California by endorsing John Briggs for Governor.

Briggs is a Republican who is trying to ride to the gubernatorial mansion by using the issues of the death penalty—which he favors—and homosexuality—which he abhors—as a route to power. A strong supporter of Anita Bryant, he is not only a firm backer of a California death-penalty initiative, but also the author of an initiative likely to appear on California’s November ballot which has the intent of banning gay teachers from the public schools, and may well prohibit any discussion of the subject by any employee of the state system. (The exact legal implications are unclear.) It would add insult to injury; not only would gays continue to be bled by taxes which go to support the state educational system, but they would be treated as virtual pariahs as well.

Jarvis’s office, in response to questioning from LR, claimed that he intended to endorse any candidate who endorses the Jarvis initiative. Does that mean he is going to endorse more than one candidate for governor? No answer.

Now this is, quite simply, yet one more case of the death wish of the American right wing. There are a host of gays in California, particularly in San Francisco, as well as a host of opponents of the death penalty. They, like everyone else, are being sent to the wall by taxation. They too are being crippled by skyrocketing property taxes.

Those who oppose the Jarvis-Gann initiative realize that they need the support of everyone who agrees with them on that issue (every bloody parasite and tax-grabbing group in the state), and have publicly commented on the odd, one-issue coalition that they represent in trying to keep property taxes high. Can Howard Jarvis afford to alienate anyone who would join in an antiproperty tax rebellion? Why then does he throw Briggs—or even Ed Davis, the caveman cum former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department—in the faces of gays and those who oppose the death penalty? Why can’t he instead—if he is serious about this tax rebellion—swallow some of his right-wing prejudice and use the same tactic as his opponents: embrace any group, of whatever cultural or political orientation, that will side with him in smashing high taxes? What kind of suicidal self-indulgence allows him to think that he can do anything less and win ?

Howard Jarvis ought to knock it off and stick to the issue: Is someone for or against cutting taxes drastically? If they are for it, he should embrace them; if they are against it, then he should assail them continually. But above all else, the right wing must stop splitting needlessly the “natural opposition constituencies” which, taken together, might make for a real rebellion against government oppression in this country.

As for the taxpayers themselves, they ought to support the initiative, come what may. After all, it is a tax limitation initiative which finds itself on the ballot, and not the wisdom or person of Howard Jarvis.