Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 January 2010
The spirit of a people, its cultural level, its social structure, the deeds its policy may prepare – all this and more is written in its fiscal history, stripped of all phrases. He who knows how to listen to its message here discerns the thunder of world history more clearly than anywhere else.– Joseph Schumpeter  1991
Everyone knows that taxation is important. Political scientists know that tax cuts are a major partisan battleground in the United States today, and that the rise of neoliberal ideology has propelled taxation onto the international policy agenda. Legal scholars know that the tax code has become the preferred vehicle for promoting an enormous variety of domestic policies – from social provisions to industrial policies to educational subsidies. Historians know that taxation has been a pivotal source of conflict and change from the American Revolution to the Reagan revolution, and that taxes have been central to the formation of civic identity across place and time. Sociologists know that nearly every issue with which they are concerned – the obligations of the individual to society; the powers and legitimacy of the state; the allocation of public and private resources; the rise of bureaucratic administration; the reproduction of class, race, and gender inequalities – runs through the issue of taxation.
There are good reasons why many scholars have recognized the importance of taxation. Taxes formalize our obligations to each other. They define the inequalities we accept and those that we collectively seek to redress.