essays

Jul 1, 1978

Victory in California

“Let us take the lead in reversing the ratchet of government. Let us get involved with all the talent and energy at our disposal.”

On June 6th, the people of California rose up and smashed the oppressive system of property taxes in that state. It was a glorious victory. They let government officials know that they were no longer listening to the politicians and bureaucrats. They fired a shot heard ’round the world, the opening salvo in the revolt of the taxpayers, and passed Proposition 13—a constitutional amendment which cuts property taxes by two-thirds and puts tight reins on the legal authority of the state and local governments to raise new taxes. If ever there was a “sense-of-life” issue, this was it. Voters swarmed to the polls in stunning, nearly unprecedented numbers, swelling with anger and outrage, defying weeks of apocalyptic forecasts, veiled threats, and naked blackmail attempts by criminal elements in the government, and gave Proposition 13—the Jarvis-Gann initiative—a stunning two-to-one victory. Optimists who had confidence in the basic good sense of the voters knew it was going to happen, but the exhilirated gasps and rousing cheers resounded throughout the state. Victory parties were everywhere—in the offices of Libertarian Review hundreds turned out to celebrate—and the people of California swelled with justifiable pride at their courageous thrashing of the opponents of Proposition 13: every tax-grabbing, parasitic, state-employed and state-supported group in the state, a veritable laundry list of special interests from the Bank of America to the California State Employees Union.

The valiant leader of the “Yes on 13” forces, the elder statesman of the tax revolt, Howard Jarvis, said it best: “We the taxpayers have spoken,” he thundered. “To ignore us is political suicide.” And indeed he was right. The headline writers throughout the state and the nation knew what had happened. There was no confusion, nothing complex, nothing mysterious. Here was emotional fuel for an exhausted nation, beaten down by taxation and by government oppression. Here was the greatest libertarian victory since the end of the draft and the collapse of the war in Vietnam. But the headlines said it in a nutshell:

“PROP 13 WINS BIG”—San Francisco Chronicle, in a bold, black banner head.

“IRATE VOTERS OK PROP. 13; Taxpayers Revolt a Reality”—Oakland Tribune.

And that was just the beginning. The famous shock waves of Proposition 13—which ignoble court intellectuals like Walter Heller kept warning about in his television pleas—began to hit, and they were felt across the nation by a grateful populace. NBC, ABC, and CBS all featured the tax revolt in lead stories. David Brinkley, in California for the vote and obviously enjoying the anti-government sentiment which reigns there these days, reported on the jubilation, and for once focused a news story on who would be helped by drastically slashed taxes. For once, the crocodile tears about the poor, the under-privileged, and the disadvantaged were gone, replaced by smiling taxpayers. For weeks the California media has been filled with little else but projections of the effects of this noble triumph.

The people of California had been told—by more than 400 economists, by a host of state employees using every dirty trick in the book by their political “leaders,” by the media, by the “new class”—that Proposition 13 would loose “anarchy” and “chaos” upon California, that it would end police and fire protection, close libraries and museums and parks, and further cripple a public school system already regarded by most as doing a poor job. The people of California didn’t believe it, or they didn’t care. The opponents of tax cuts waged a vicious, well-financed, professional, manipulative campaign on every level. The more they talked, the more the people flocked to the banner of Yes on 13. More than a week before the vote, the morale of No on 13 forces had visibly collapsed; they knew they were only going through the motions, that their days were numbered, that they would lose big. And they did.

Bleeding heart liberal Mary McGrory followed Governor Jerry Brown around on his anti-13 campaign, and reported that “Brown was constantly meeting policemen and firemen who told him squarely that they would rather lose their jobs than their homes. The very people whose jobs we were told were at stake voted Yes on 13.” When the Los Angeles Times and KNXT-TV News in L.A. conducted a survey immediately after the election to learn why voters had voted as they had, the results indicated that nearly 25 percent of the voting public believed “government provides many unnecessary services.” And those voters had all paid visits to city hall, to the county hall of administration, to the Department of Motor Vehicles, to the Post Office. That is why all the bilge about “essential services” being cut was just so much rot. They knew that what few worthwhile “services” were being provided by government were provided only at enormous cost and never with the excellence they could expect at least occasionally from private business.

The voters in California were fed up when they went to the polls on June 6th—fed up with politicians and with the accelerating price of keeping them in the style to which they had unaccountably grown accustomed. “With the passage of Jarvis,” The Berkeley Barb editorialized, “The whole idea that government provided valuable services to the people has been called into question, and the public now seems to view the civil servant with the same distaste it holds for the tax collector.” The vote for Jarvis-Gann, wrote Peter Shrag in the Sacramento Bee of June 11, was a “fundamental declaration of no confidence in public officials, public institutions and, in some respects, in the conventional democratic process itself.”

And within days of the electorate’s decision, its lack of confidence was fully vindicated. First the Brown administration began talking about its budget surplus, which might be used to aid the financially striken cities and counties—a surplus of $5.3 billion. But wait a minute, objected the Los Angeles Times: Why had the same officials estimated the same surplus at only $3.4 billion the week before the election? There was the stench of rotten fish in Sacramento.

Then came the admissions of guilt: State Finance Director Roy A. Bell admitted to the Times that Howard Jarvis hadn’t been far off when he accused the opponents of his proposition of using scare tactics. For example, Bell said, the widely publicized UCLA economic forecast—which had warned just before the election that nearly half a million Californians would lose their jobs if Proposition 13 passed—wasn’t accurate. It had failed—somehow—to take into account any state budget surplus at all, even the $3.4 billion everyone “knew” was there. And three days after Bell admitted in public that officials had, ahem, “soft-peddled” the amount of state aid local governments could expect if Jarvis passed, a new UCLA study predicted that the economy would grow faster in the next year than it would have if 13 had not passed. The politicians knew that lower taxes would mean more economic growth, but told the public the exact opposite. But the people of California, at least, had learned not to rely any longer on the honesty of politicians.

The tax revolt spreads

The tidal wave had hit; the California public’s disillusionment and distrust was spreading, and with it the spirit of tax revolt. Time reported (June 26) that a recent New York Daily News Poll on the question, “How do you feel about taxes?”, touched off the largest response the paper has ever seen to any such poll. And the majority of the 117,000 replies favored sharp cuts in all taxes: property, sales, and income. A similar poll in the Boston Herald-American found that nearly 80 percent of those responding favored a legal ceiling on property taxes. The Charleston Daily Mailasked its readers if they would approve of major state tax cuts accompanied by curtailment of many public services; 93 percent of those who responded said yes.

Voters in Cleveland turned out to turn down a tax increase to benefit Ohio’s largest school district. A petition campaign is underway in Oregon to put a Jarvis-Gann type measure on the November ballot. Another is underway in Colorado, an third in Tennessee. And the June 8 Christian Science Monitor reported the first steps toward similar action in Utah, Washington, Maine, South Dakota, Illinois, Hawaii, Texas, Georgia, and Florida. Truly, as California journalist Arthur Zich put it in the June 12 issue of New Times, “whatever else 1978 has in store, it will go down as the year of the Great American Tax Rebellion—the beginning of a new, nationwide Boston Tea Party.”

In California and throughout the nation, government employees and politicians are beginning to react in different ways, neatly dividing into two opposing camps. One camp, mostly of unelected officials, wants to let the taxpayers have it in the teeth. They want to cut where things will be hurt the most. They want to wreck things, to punish the taxpayers for their arrogance in voting to keep the fruits of their labor, to make them crawl and give in to government oppression. These are the people who want to break the backs of every proud, independent American, bending him to the will of the state. These are the people now attempting to organize the unthinking, to get them to march and protest against any and every cutback in government expenditures. These are the people who have their hands around the throats of the American people, and who will not let go. They claim to represent the interests of “the people.” They claim to be advocates of democracy. But they are in fact a new elite who would like to bring a full-fledged despotism to America, where they would reign supreme. These are the people who ought to be summarily thrown out of office and socially boycotted by anyone concerned with human liberty, with human welfare, with human dignity.

The other camp is just as hypocritical, but less dangerous. These are the more trendy politicians who have already begun changing their philosophy to match the new mandate. As Time put it, “a swelling legion of vote-conscious politicians across the U.S.” is now busily “trying to look like fiscal conservatives.” And for some of them the changeover has been so abrupt it must have been dizzying. California’s Governor Brown—an almost embarrassingly obvious example—was calling Jarvis-Gann “expensive, unworkable and crazy” a week before the election, and was promising new state taxes to offset the revenue loss the proposition would bring. Within 24 hours of Jarvis-Gann’s victory, Brown was talking about “the spirit of 13” and claiming that he not only endorsedthe concepts of “an end to spiraling taxes and an end to spiraling government spending”—but that he had originated them. Still, he was able to tell Time a bit later in the month when he began making cuts in the state budget that “we’re cutting into the bone and the marrow.” “The cuts,” Time commented, “will mean that there will be no repeat of such past grants as $1000 for creating an underwater instrument to serenade whales and dolphins off the coast … and $700 for a group to stage plays in laundromats.”

Jimmy Carter himself has leapt ponderously onto the tax revolt bandwagon, calling Proposition 13 “a welcome experiment” of which “I certainly don’t have any criticism.”

These are the people who know that Proposition 13 is the first step in the antitax revolution, not the last. These are the people who would like to dance to the tune of the tax revolt, but really don’t know how.

Libertarians and the tax revolt

Libertarians in California were particularly exultant when Proposition 13 rode to victory. Celebrations in Los Angeles, San Francisco and elsewhere were rapturous; the victory celebrations found libertarians and those who had worked for Yes on 13 throughout the state mixing in good humor and optimism about the future. There was cheering, singing, cavorting, joking, applauding, revelling in the smashing of the property tax. Paul Gann, the co-author of and indefatigable campaigner for 13, joined with libertarians in Los Angeles; in San Francisco the Yes on 13 forces joined with libertarians in the LR offices to watch the returns. Libertarians were proud, and justifiably so, for here was a cause that they had worked for, a libertarian cause that had won. They had written and passed out leaflets, appeared at meetings, debated, asked questions in the public debates of others, came to rallies, spoken out on radio and television, manned literature tables, and campaigned for 13 in the streets.

Ed Clark, the LP candidate for governor of California, spoke out on 13 constantly, appearing with Paul Gann at rallies and before crowds. Ed Crane, former LP national chairman and the head of the Cato Institute, appeared in debates and before numerous groups, and spoke out brilliantly on radio and television, both alone and on panels. Local libertarian Trevor Pitts mounted an excellent campaign for Yes on 13 by printing up and distributing—at meeting after meeting, crowds swarming around—leaflets and other literature defending 13. A local gay group started “Gays for Proposition 13,” and printed up leaflets aimed at both gays and straights. I myself spoke on radio, before groups, and debated the California lobbyist for Common Cause on Jarvis-Gann before a crowd in Grass Valley. The only time my opponent got any applause was when he tried to scapegoat me: I was a member of the Libertarian Party, he said, and “they are against government!” The audience of several hundred people roared its approval.

The tax revolt is indeed beginning to get underway. It is a prime opportunity for libertarians to take charge, to do in other states what was done in California, to mount a radical movement to cutall taxes across the board; to cut, cut, and cut again. Today, we are the Sons of Liberty, men and women who are the spiritual ancestors of those who fought and struggled in the American revolution.

When the smoke from this opening battle has cleared, hard questions are going to be asked. Both the people of California and its opportunistic politicians are going to ask: What can we cutlLiberals cannot answer that question. Conservatives cannot answer it. We alone can give them a list. Let them start with the victimless crime laws and the vice squads that enforce them. Let them start with our reckless interventionist foreign policy and the bloated military budget that bankrolls it. Let them start with those alphabet agencies of intervention and regulation which are preventing free competition and are strangling the American economy. And then let them continue dismantling that system of paternalism and regimentation which victimizes the majority in this country for the sake of a vicious, parasitic minority.

Then let us take the lead in reversing the ratchet of government. Let us get involved with all the talent and energy at our disposal. Let us be the leaders of a new revolution not only for Americans, but for the rest of the world as well. We have it in our power to change the course of history.