Why Robin Hood Was "Anti-Tax": How the Rich Steal From the Poor, Then and Now

Rush Limbaugh gets frustrated:

Everybody thinks that Robin Hood was out there stealing money from the rich and taking it back and giving it to the citizens of Sherwood Forrest. Robin Hood was stealing from the Government! Robin Hood was a tea party activist. Robin Hood was Anti-Taxes! And it's another myth that so many people misunderstand what Robin Hood is all about. And of course, the Democrats don't care about the truth, they care about the illusion that they can carry forward, so Obama now trying to call Romney, Romneyhood, and by the way, this is not new, this is not new . . .

Now, those of us with heads on our shoulders read this with some mix of exasperation, anger and amusement. We all know Rush is ridiculous here.

But the historian in me does feel for him, just a little bit. It's not that he's wrong. The Robin Hood legend is deeply anti-tax. It is. But then, most progressive stories involving historical or semi-historical figures from the pre-Industrial era are, also. The American and French revolutions were both heavily anti-tax in their own ways, also.

But that's also the basis of the key conceit of the modern tea party right. In the days before representative democracies and broad middle classes, the elites served as royalty and nobility. Part of the way they funneled income from the lower classes to themselves was in the form of arbitrary taxation. Back in the olden days, elites used whimsical tax policy to steal from the 99% to fund the lavish lifestyles and wars of choice for the 1%. So Robin Hood was all about taking that money, taxed and untaxed, from the rich and giving it back to the poor. It's also notable that wealthy church figures were not immune from the legend's redistributive impulse.

Changing that balance of power was one of the great advances of modern representative democracy. By putting the power in the hands of an ever-broadening middle class, the power of the 1% to inflict punitive taxes to fatten their own purses was dramatically lessened. At least in theory, democracy allows for the taxed to choose the level of its own taxation and its spending priorities. Since the 1% account for only 1% of the vote, their decisions carry less weight, which forces them to be more humble and act in the best interests of everyone. Also, the middle class has the right to vote for progressive taxation to place a check on runaway theft by the 1%. That's the theory, anyway. Of course, when global economic dynamics swamp the tax policies of nation states and the 1% are allowed to spend untold sums to buy elections, that balance of power changes immeasurably.

But from a simplistic point of view, the reforms of representative democracy turned taxation from an elitist burden on the 99% to a progressive tool of the 99%. In the olden days, the 1% eagerly used taxation on the poor to benefit themselves. Now, the 1% fear taxation above all things. Of course, the flat tax plans of Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney are an attempt to reverse course and reinstitute regressive taxes. So considerable backsliding is possible.

But to say that Robin Hood was anti-tax is tell a major lie by way a minor truth. The legend of Robin Hood was about redistributing the wealth from the super rich to the poor. Taxation was just one tool the super rich used to steal money from the very poor. But the taxes weren't what was important. Income inequality was.

It still is.

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