The Chicago Tax Strike of 1977

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This originally
appeared in Libertarian Review in 1977

In recent months,
a mighty property-tax strike has been sweeping the northern suburbs
of Chicago, and, for once, the ideological and organizational leadership
of the rebellion is being provided by libertarians.

It all began
with a recent massive property reassessment in the northern quadrant
of Cook County, Illinois. The reassessments suddenly boosted property
taxes by very large amounts: most raises were in the 50–65
percent range; other tax bills increased by as much as 300 percent.
When the property-tax bills were sent out, the citizens of the North
Shore reacted with shock and anger. At first the reaction was outraged
but inchoate: phone calls bombarded the Cook County Assessors Office.
Complaints also deluged the Chicago Tribune, which initiated
public knowledge of the firestorm of grievance by printing some
of the complaints in a front-page article. Many of the letters were
a cry from the heart, asking, in effect, where is the leadership,
where is the organization, that can organize and redress my grievances?
Thus, one outraged taxpayer wrote, "I bitterly resent the government
trying to steal my house from me, and that’s what they’re doing."
Another poured out his frustrations in the Chicago Tribune
article: "I just don’t know what to do. It’s frustrating as
hell. I hear people talk about a revolution, but I don’t know how
to revolt."

As soon as
the article was published, libertarian activists from the Libertarian
Party of Illinois and the National Taxpayers United (the Illinois
affiliate of the National Taxpayers Union) saw their opportunity
and seized it. A meeting was arranged in Evanston between representatives
from the LPI and NTU, and an Evanston resident quoted in the Tribune
article. The meeting formed a Taxpayer’s Protest Committee, with
Leonard Hartman, the quoted Evanston resident, at its head. James
Tobin, 31-year-old economist and bank auditor and Illinois NTU head
who was to become the principal leader of the tax rebellion, urged
an outright tax strike; he was ably seconded by Milton Mueller,
chairman of the Libertarian Party of Illinois.

The committee
decided to call a "town hall" type meeting in Evanston
to see if the property taxpayers would be willing to go along with
an outright tax strike – a refusal to pay the assessed taxes.
Notice of the meeting ran only in the early editions of the Chicago
Tribune; largely, the organizers relied merely on word of mouth.

The committee
expected about 50 people to appear at the meeting, which was held
on the night of August 3 in the Evanston Public Library. Instead,
200 citizens showed up. Harmann, without a libertarian background,
argued for a legal protest: paying the taxes while protesting and
appealing the assessments. But James Tobin far better expressed
the radical spirit of the meeting by calling for an open tax strike.
"We all know we’ve had big taxes thrown on our backs,"
Tobin charged. "And now it has come down to what we’re going
to do about it. Are we going to let city hall control our lives,
or are we going to make enough noise for them to listen to us?"
It is particularly gratifying to me that my Conceived
in Liberty
was brandished aloft by Tobin as he explained
why it was not "unpatriotic" to refuse tax payments, giving
examples from the book of early American tax revolts. Tobin asserted
that "We’ve gotten to the point where we are afraid of our
government, afraid of what it can do to us. It’s time somebody stood
up and pointed the finger!"

Tobin also
presented a well-thought out set of demands for the tax strike.
The demands included

  1. extending
    the August 15 deadline for property-tax payments by three months;
  2. freezing
    assessments at the old rate, so that taxes do not go up along
    with government-created inflation;
  3. no increase
    in tax rates without a publicly announced referendum;
  4. allowing
    small groups of taxpayers to obtain referenda for reducing tax
    rates; and
  5. full amnesty
    for the tax strikers.

The sentiment
of the crowd was overwhelmingly in favor of the tax strike, which
was only opposed by two persons. Typical of the sentiment was the
charge by a German immigrant in Evanston that when he attempted
to challenge the increased assessment, the assessors told him that
he had to wait until he received his bill; but after he received
the bill, the office told him that he would have had to challenge
the assessment before the bill was sent. "These are
Nazi tactics!" the man charged.

The organizers
passed the hat at the meeting and raised over $400 for printing
and for an advertisement in a local paper. More important was the
excellent publicity generated by the meeting: a Tribune article,
a page-three article in the Chicago Daily News replete with
pictures, and coverage by two TV stations and several radio stations.

the rest of the North Shore was leafleted, meetings burgeoned in
other townships, such as Glenview, Palatine, and Wilmette. The New
York Times gave full coverage, plus photographs, to a later
meeting in Evanston, held on August 18 at the First United Methodist
Church. The meeting of 350 homeowners "shouted their approval"
as Jim Tobin charged that "Taxes are immoral," and nationwide
TV coverage showed "Taxation Is Theft" placards being
brandished at these Illinois tax-protest meetings. Tobin told the
cheering throng that "you can never call a tax fair when you
are forced to pay against your will. It’s immoral to force me to
pay for educational facilities when I don’t have any children to
send to school. It’s immoral to force the elderly and retired to
pay for schools that are no use to them." In this way, Tobin
escalated the analysis, and raised the libertarian consciousness
of his listeners by widening the attack to the public-school system
itself – the "consumer" of the bulk of all property
taxes across the country.

In its August
issue announcing the strike, the Illinois Libertarian, the
newsletter of the Libertarian Party of Illinois, concludes its informative
article by saying that

How effective
the strike will be is dependent upon many unpredictable things.
But by any standard, our efforts thus far have been extremely
rewarding, and if the politicians aren’t paying attention they’ll
be sorry. The strike may not cripple the county government or
even come near it, but even so, thousands of people have either
taken actions or been exposed to ideas which question the very
legitimacy of government.

But, in a sense,
this thoughtful conclusion underestimates the impact of the Illinois
tax strike. For the later New York Times article indicates
clearly that the politicians have indeed been paying attention,
and are scared stiff. The pattern of the New Jersey income-tax protest
movement of last year is repeating itself, with politicians scrambling
to cover their flanks.

Thus, when
Tobin and a throng of protestors showed up at the governor’s office
in Chicago to demand a special session of the legislature to redress
the grievances, the "discomfited" Governor James Thompson
promised to consider the request, and "expressed sympathy with
the group’s aims." At the August 18 Evanston meeting, several
government officials showed up to try to explain the tax increase.
They were received with "jeers and boos," but despite
that, "the officials gave sympathetic responses and some concessions
to the taxpayers’ demands."

George Dunne, chief executive officer of Cook County, pledged at
the meeting to support a move in the legislature to roll back property
taxes. The same pledge was made by the counsel for Thomas M. Tully,
the Cook County assessor. The counsel, Dan Pierce, agreed with the
protestors that he doesn’t understand why the county’s budget is
so high. "There’s no question that the taxes are too high,"
Pierce conceded; he particularly didn’t understand why school-district
budgets had doubled in the last seven years in Cook County, at a
time when school enrollments were declining.

Thus, libertarians
have leaped to discover and give voice to the antigovernment and
antitax grievances of their fellow citizens. Not only have they
been mobilized for libertarian action and educated in libertarian
ideas, including opposition to the public schools and the idea that
taxation is theft, but the politicians have begun to knuckle under
to their vociferous demands and actions. Politicians, scared for
their jobs and scared of the voters, will buckle under pressure.
This has already been demonstrated in Illinois.

Finally, the
tax rebellion shows the great importance of libertarian activists
and organizations – such as the LPI and NTU – already
being in place to take advantage of and take the lead in
mass protests and mass movements.


N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian
School, founder of modern libertarianism, and academic
vice president of the Mises
. He was also editor — with Lew Rockwell —
of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his
literary executor.

Best of Murray Rothbard

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