February 25, 2009 1:03PM

Many Unhappy Returns

On this day in 1913, 96 years ago, the secretary of state notified Congress that the Sixteenth Amendment had been ratified and it was free to start taxing incomes directly. Some would say it’s all been downhill since then. Frank Chodorov called it “the root of all evil”:

The Sixteenth Amendment corroded the American concept of natural rights; ultimately reduced the American citizen to a status of subject, so much so that he is not aware of it; enhanced Executive power to the point of reducing Congress to innocuity; and enabled the central government to bribe the states, once independent units, into subservience.

Certainly the income tax makes possible the massive federal government that we have today. Without the ability to collect taxes directly from individuals — and through the veil of paycheck withholding — government could never hope to pay for troops in 135 countries, the retirement income of tens of millions of Americans, a vast army of federal employees, and all the other hallmarks of the modern state.

The very first issue of the Cato Journal looked at the income tax, including essays by Arthur Ekirch and John Buenker on its origins and by Ronald Hamowy on civil liberties and the IRS. In later issues Charlotte Twight looked at withholding, and Bruce Bartlett examined how the income tax helped to bring down the Roman republic.