Tax Day Makes Me Wonder, Are There Any More Vivien Kellems?

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Recently, I was throwing away some things that had accumulated in my dad’s attic, and I was intrigued by a yellowed, brittle page from the local newspaper because it was dated June 6, 1958, the month and year I was born. There was a wonderful article about my dad graduating with honors from the University of Chattanooga, but it was what I read on the flip-side editorial page that stunned me: “Courage Brings Persecution to Woman Fighting for Rights.”

The editorial was about a woman business owner in Connecticut, Vivien Kellems. The writer, Westbrook Pegler, said, “Miss Kellems has been a warrior for all of us for about 15 years in a personal campaign to restore our constitutional right to the profit of our work and talent.” Turns out she was a warrior because she refused to be an “agent” of the government for collecting federal taxes from her 100-something employees.

Here’s what she said: “If they wanted me to be their agent, they’d have to pay me, and I want a badge.” In essence, she was asking, What moral principle justifies the government forcing employers to act as its unpaid tax collectors?

In her 1952 book Toil, Taxes, and Trouble, which can be read here, Kellems wrote:

The most un-American phrase in our modern vocabulary is ‘take home pay.’ What do we mean, ‘take home pay’? When I hire a man to work for me we discuss three things: the job to be done, the hours he shall work, and the wages he shall receive. And on Friday when he receives that pay envelope, we have both fulfilled our contract for that week. . . . This system is deliberately designed to make involuntary tax collectors of every employer and to impose involuntary tax servitude upon every employee. We don’t need to go to Russia for slavery, we’ve got it right here.

She only surrendered her case against forced collection of federal taxes when it threatened to bankrupt her company, but she continued to challenge other aspects of the income tax for the rest of her life, calling it “a 1,598-page hydra-headed monster.”

Pegler rightly said of her, “Very few citizens have been willing to spend the time and mental effort necessary to learn that they are not free citizens but serfs under the amendment to give Congress the power to confiscate every cent of every person’s income every year.” And while Congress has never done that, the top tax rate during my lifetime was, for a number of years, 70 percent until slashed during the Reagan presidency.

But today it isn’t just the income tax that has reduced us from “free citizens” to “serfs.” Congress gives us a plethora of new laws every year that take away our liberties, all in the name of doing something good for us.

But worse yet is our United States Supreme Court. It keeps creating out of thin air new individual rights and setting them in a form of constitutional cement that thwarts our ability to govern ourselves as a society, no matter whom we put in Congress or in the Oval Office.

What the history of France tells us is that when the U.S. Supreme Court’s unrestrained governing principle of individual autonomy runs its course, we will find that it has failed to deliver on the promise inherent in that individualism of equality and brotherhood. Individualism doesn’t lead to equality and brotherhood but to greater inequality and chaos. When that happens, history also tells us that big government politicians come to the rescue, promising us that socialism will deliver the equality and brotherhood we desire.

So, when you read about income inequality, the phenomenon of Bernie Sanders; the millennial generation lauding socialism; and even Pope Francis suggesting a new, more equitable economic system; just know it’s coming to America.

What I don’t know is whether any Vivien Kellems will arise to stop what’s coming. But if they arise, I believe it will be because they were inspired by pulpits aflame with a radical form of the gospel, not a new one, just one too many seem to have forgotten. I’ll talk about that next week.


David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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