The public control of corporate power: Revisiting the 1909 U.S. corporate tax from a comparative perspective

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The origins of U.S. corporate taxation are often associated with the 1909 corporate excise tax. Scholars who have investigated the beginnings of this levy have mainly focused on the legislative history of the 1909 corporate tax to argue that it was either an expression of the Progressive Era impulse to regulate large-scale corporations or an attempt to use corporations as remittance devices to collect taxes aimed at wealthy shareholders. This Article broadens the conventional historical accounts of the emergence of American corporate taxation by revisiting the 1909 U.S. corporate tax from a comparative perspective. The aim is to look both below and beyond the American nation-state to determine how and why U.S. state governments and other Western industrialized nations tried to tax corporations at the turn of the twentieth century. This Article investigates a small slice of subnational and transnational comparative examples: corporate tax laws and policies in a few representative nineteenth-century industrializing American states, and in turn-of-the-century England and Germany. Building on the well-known insights of comparative business history, this Article contends that historically-determined political interests, social ideas, and cultural beliefs help explain the American obsession with disciplining large-scale business corporations through the use of nominally punitive tax laws and policies. Comparative-historical analysis shows how differences in the organizational structures of big businesses across place and time have led to variations in political economy that were ultimately expressed in the legal ideas and cultural attitudes toward corporate capitalism. These variations, in turn, shaped the transnational distinctions in corporate tax law and policies. Greater attention to the comparative-historical development of law and political economy may help us understand the stubborn persistence of American corporate taxation, particularly in the face of recent global changes and the relentless economic critiques of the double taxation of corporate income.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)497-538
Number of pages42
JournalTheoretical Inquiries in Law
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 27 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Law


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