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The Conservative Approach to Taxation: The Complexity of Society, the Displacement of Voluntary Associations, and the Growth of the State

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Although conservatives have harbored a variety of views on taxation, their approaches are interwoven by a number of key themes: an opposition to imposing rigid economic formulas on the complexity of social life; a sensitive awareness of the inverse relationship between the growth of the modern state’s taxing powers and the displacement of voluntary associations; and a deep unease over the negative impact of wide-scale taxing schemes on social order. The spiritual vacuum created by the dissolution of a belief in a God-centered transcendent order and the decline in organized religion and traditional morality, combined with the rise of modern rationalism and its managerial and technocratic tendencies, has encouraged the modern state to practice social engineering in pursuit of abstract ideals, of which the power to tax was one of its most potent accomplices.


  • Conservatism
  • Taxation
  • Edmund Burke
  • Michael Oakeshott
  • Winston Churchill
  • Russell Kirk
  • Robert Nisbet
  • William F. Buckley
  • George F. Will
  • Thomas Sowell
  • Property
  • Voluntary associations
  • French revolution
  • Revenue
  • Socialism
  • Capitalism
  • Agricultural economy
  • Freedom
  • Wealth redistribution
  • Social engineering
  • Rationalism
  • Utopianism
  • Equality

The author would like to thank Ben Dormus, Dominic de Cogan, Annette Kirk, Felicia Kirk Flores, Cecilia Kirk Nelson, the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, Lee Trepanier, Jason Jewell, Marjorie Jeffrey, Steven Hayward, and Luke C. Sheahan for their research support for this chapter.

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  1. 1.

    See Holmes’ dissent in Compañia General de Tabacos de Filipinas v. Collector of Internal Revenue, 275 U.S. 87 (1927).

  2. 2.

    It is plausible that such institutional restraints influenced the pragmatic substance of their views on taxation. If Kirk, Oakeshott, or Nisbet had been elected representatives in the national legislature, for instance, perhaps they would have supported particular tax policies similar to the ones endorsed by Burke or Churchill, or perhaps not. Similarly, if Burke or Churchill had never served in government, perhaps they would have framed their views on taxation in a different manner.

  3. 3.

    This chapter will avoid discussion of the thinkers’ personal finances. In addition, please consult biographies of these thinkers for greater detail on the historical context behind their thoughts on taxation and public affairs discussed herein.

  4. 4.

    Note that Burke observed in the Reflections that insofar as man can be perfected, it was through God, not social engineering. See Mitchell (2007, 148).

  5. 5.

    For Voegelin, see his essay “The New Science of Politics” in Henningsen (2000, 75–241).

  6. 6.

    This essay was first published in 1948. He wrote another paper with the same title that was published later.

  7. 7.

    Paul Franco has characterized Oakeshott’s political philosophy as a distinctive kind of liberalism blending Hegelianism and Hobbesianism. See Franco (1990).

  8. 8.

    Oakeshott reviewed Professor Henry C. Simons’ book Economic Policy for a Free Society in this essay.

  9. 9.

    Do note that even this formulation contains exceptions. Consider the Housing Act 1980, passed under Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party.

  10. 10.

    Consult Collins (2020) for discussion of Thoughts and Details on Scarcity and other aspects of Burke’s economic thought.

  11. 11.

    “Economic Situation,” vol. 434, Hansard, UK Parliament, 12 March 1947, 1349. Available at, accessed March 11, 2021.

  12. 12.

    Consult Collins (2020), chapter 11 for elaboration on these consequences.

  13. 13.

    “Demobilisation,” vol. 414, Hansard, UK Parliament, 22 October 1945, 1703–04,, accessed February 22, 2021.

  14. 14.

    Even on this note, Burke’s conception of the state is not precisely defined. In various contexts, including those above, it encompassed public administration and the wider social relations of a people in a political community.

  15. 15.

    This section on Churchill is indebted to the scholarship of Martin Gilbert and Martin Daunton.

  16. 16.

    Consult Martin Daunton (2002) for a review of the politics of British taxation during this period and throughout the twentieth century.

  17. 17.

    The Parliamentary Debates, vol. CLXIX (London: Wyman and Sons, 1907), 133.

  18. 18.

    In 1902, as a member of the Conservative Party, Churchill was charged with a breach of consistency in endorsing free trade while also supporting the sugar tax and corn tax. Churchill defended himself by insisting that the primary aim of the taxes—which were intended as emergency proposals to help finance the costs of war—was to generate revenue, not to protect colonial goods from foreign markets. Consult Gilbert (1991, 152).

  19. 19.

    “Financial Statement,” vol. 183, Hansard, UK Parliament, 28 April 1925, 89,, accessed February 22, 2021.

  20. 20.

    “Financial Statement,” vol. 183, Hansard, 28 April 1925, 72, supra n. 20.

  21. 21.

    Note that this formulation does not necessarily reflect the actual history of taxation in England.

  22. 22.

    As an aside, Kirk also endorsed the idea of tax credits to provide support to independent colleges and a school voucher system in which the state would provide tax relief or a rebate to the school, see Kirk (1971a, b).

  23. 23.

    For Kirk’s writings on humane political economy and its moral and religious underpinnings, see Kirk (1957b, 1982, 1989a, b, 1992). Consult Attarian (1996, 1998).

  24. 24.

    This account of Oakeshott is indebted to Dominic de Cogan (2017).

  25. 25.

    Consult Oakeshott’s essays “On the Civil Condition” (On Human Conduct, 108–84) and “On the Character of a Modern European State” (On Human Conduct, 185–326).

  26. 26.

    I thank Dominic de Cogan for alerting me to this key point.

  27. 27.

    See Oakeshott’s comments on Aristotle’s teleology and its connection to notions of the common good in Oakeshott (2003, 118/9 n1).

  28. 28.

    See also Buckley’s many comments on Reaganomics and taxation in Buckley (1985).

  29. 29.

    “In Depth: William F. Buckley Jr.,” C-SPAN, April 2, 2000,, accessed March 13, 2021.

  30. 30.

    For Will, consult, among many, Will (1984, 2011, 2019). For Sowell, consult, among many, Sowell (1996, 1999, 2004, 2007, 2012).

  31. 31.

    Will said in 2019 that he embraced “soft libertarianism.” See Nordlinger (2019). Sowell said in 1999 that “libertarian” was the best way to describe him, even though he held differences with the movement regarding the military. See Sawhill (1999). For Buckley, see Buckley (2008).

  32. 32.

    Consult also Nisbet’s essay “Cloaking the State’s Dagger,” Reason (October 1984),, accessed March 11, 2021.

  33. 33.

    For a recent discussion of Nisbet’s thoughts on associations and their application to First Amendment law, see Sheahan (2020).

  34. 34.

    For the origins of this phrase, see Hewart (1929).

  35. 35.

    Of course, Schumpeter was more praiseworthy than Nisbet of the contributions of large firms to society.

  36. 36.

    Variations of this argument can be found, among many, in Bastiat (2018); Rothbard (2002); and Nozick (2013).

  37. 37.

    One could offer as an addendum to Nisbet’s list the U.S. Congress’ Revenue Act of 1861, which introduced the first federal income tax in U.S. history to help finance the Union’s war against the Confederacy.

  38. 38.

    In practice, of course, conservative statesmen and governments have not always heeded these principles.

  39. 39.

    Consult “Family Man,” International Churchill Society,, accessed March 9, 2021.


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Correspondence to Gregory M. Collins .

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Compañía of Case Law

Compañía of Case Law

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Compañia General de Tabacos de Filipinas v. Collector of Internal Revenue, 275 U.S. 87 (1927).

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Collins, G.M. (2022). The Conservative Approach to Taxation: The Complexity of Society, the Displacement of Voluntary Associations, and the Growth of the State. In: van Brederode, R.F. (eds) Political Philosophy and Taxation. Springer, Singapore.

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