Lonely Tax Reformers Press On

The economy is surging forward. Clean-energy stocks are outpacing the markets. Seventeen of the 20 largest cities in the United States have voluntarily increased their debt-retirement payments to the federal government. This is the climate in which independent film producer Ashley Charles must pitch “The Short List,” her documentary project on economic and tax reform based on the ideas if Friedrich List.

Investors, it seems, don’t share her fascination with Herr List, a political economist who gained fame with his 1840 manifesto, The National System of Political Economy. List’s main idea was that, because citizens place their selfish interests ahead of national concerns, nations must protect their industries from foreign competition. Such ideas are slow going in this age of ever-increasing globalization, but a dogged movement of enthusiasts who call themselves “Listians” presses on. They seek to spread Friedrich List’s ideas with study groups, placards, video games and children’s stories.

“You have no idea how little those people will work for,” says Mort Flinder, who heads a nonprofit called Center for Safe Alternatives. “In Indomarinia there is a large and growing movement advocating for more child labor.”

The unprecedented prosperity that followed in the wake of Great Britain’s adoption of a national rent-as-revenue policy in 2014, and the United States’s bold response in the Boxer-Paul Revenue Overhaul Act of 2016, has brought hard times for economic reformers, including the Listians. Although a reasonably strong movement in support of List’s protectionist ideas arose toward the end of the 20th century, in recent years the Listians have found it increasingly hard to find converts.

“Are they still around?” asked Frank Ortiz, recently retired Finance Director of Philadelphia, who oversaw a dramatic increase in both the city’s manufacturing and service sectors following Philadelphia’s abolition of local sales and wage taxes in 2014. “Look,” added Ortiz, “Philadelphians ship their products all around the world. Why would we be interested in protectionism?”

Hank Hartley, who recently lost a close race for Mayor of Akron, Ohio, is unapologetic. “I don’t see free trade helping the poor schmoes who work in Akron’s tire factories,” he said. Hartley is currently campaigning to bring suit to test the constitutionality of the Boxer-Paul Act. “This outrageous law overturned two hundred years of legal precedent on the private right to collect land rents.” How much has Hartley’s online fundraising campaign brought in, so far? “Well, it’s — low four figures,” he admitted.

Filmmaker Ashley Charles has raised a similar amount. She sent an email to 900 other Listians, promising a new movie “that will lay the groundwork for a popular embrace of Friedrich List’s philosophy, the like of which has not existed for more than a hundred years.”

The total raised: $1,000. “Recent tax policies have worked out pretty well, so far,” Ms. Charles admits. “When his own backers won’t fund a movie about him, you know he’s in trouble.”

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