Latin America is widely known as a low-tax region, but Brazil defies that description with a tax burden almost double the regional average. Though longstanding, Brazil’s position atop the tax burden ranking is not a historical constant. As recently as the early 1950s three other countries, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, had similar or even heavier burdens. However, by the early 1980s Brazil had emerged as the most heavily taxed country in Latin America, and subsequent decades reinforced that status. This article seeks to uncover the roots of Brazil’s heavy taxation by examining the process through which it rose to the top of the regional ranking and managed to stay there. It emphasises two variables, the social class bases of public sector growth and the degree of support for democracy among key political actors. Despite changing over time, these variables have consistently interacted in ways that favour rising taxation.