Monday, March 10, 2008

Learning to love the tax man

Every year, as we approach tax day, we are subject to a round of scolding OpEds telling us how lucky we are to be paying such a sizable chunk of our income to support such a wonderful government. Peter L. Bernstein was ahead of the rush with his February 10 missive in the New York Times admonishing us:

We should have a sense of reward for helping to finance government. Yes, I know that government has serious faults, many and varied. But if we were to restrict our check-writing to parties without serious faults, we might as well throw away the checkbook.

Bernstein wins extra Pollyanna points for citing Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s over-used comment that "[t]axes are the price we pay for civilization" without pointing out how the size of government in the 1920s compares with the metastasized modern product or giving equal time to Holmes's point that "[s]tate interference is an evil, where it cannot be shown to be a good."

Whenever I see a column like Bernstein's I wonder if, perhaps, the author is blowing the head of the local IRS office, or just owes the tax collectors a favor. I'll be charitable, though, and assume that Bernstein is sincere in his claim that "[p]aying taxes is the only way to have public goods that benefit all of us."

Let's look at the examples that Bernstein believes are so worthy of our support.

We want an army to defend our country, but who will stand up and say, “O.K., I will take on the army as my personal responsibility”? Who would even want such an arrangement?

The same arguments apply to the local police departments around the nation. Or, when it comes to education, can anybody expect me to pay on my own for the schooling of millions of other people’s children across the country? I spent plenty to educate my own children. We have to do this together as taxpayers.

Would that be the same army that is currently deployed to Iraq, occupying a country where it is unwelcome, killing and being killed, all to the tune of some $500 billion to $3 trillion?

I could skip that, thank you. How about (to be moderate) we replace it with a militia and, maybe, a small professional navy and air force? That would get us that all-important defense at much lower cost. I'm not sure what the savings would be, but I'll bet it would shave a few bucks off my tax bill (and keep a few folks out of the cold, cold ground).

Local police departments? Those would be the law-enforcement agencies acquiring military-style tactics, weapons and attitudes for use against the common citizens of these United States -- mostly to enforce a doomed and oppressive effort to prohibit certain disfavored intoxicants. Too many professional law-enforcers carry over their army-of-occupation attitudes to even the most trivial encounters with the people they supposedly protect.

You can pull that from my bill too.

Education? That means the public schools, right? Oh no. Not the floundering, politicized holding pens that could be so much worse if they weren't so thoroughly incompetent. That's a pity about the government schools' complete inability to reverse declining literacy despite sky-rocketing per-pupil expenditures. Yeah, that's tempting, but I think I'd rather teach my kid ... ummm ... any other way.

Strike that line on the tax bill too.

To his credit, Bernstein allows that "entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, or even unemployment insurance" and farm subsidies are maybe not so clearly deserving of tax support. He admits that there are grounds for debate here, unlike over the war, drug prohibition and compulsory illiteracy line items. That's kind of him, but perhaps a bit short of admitting that the whole subject of a tax-subsidized leviathan legitimately rubs many of us the wrong way.

In fact, Bernstein goes on to concede that "[m]uch government spending on public goods involves waste, and sometimes corruption, and is often badly executed." Well, yes, that's true. That's a big part of why many of us would prefer to choose our own services and pay for them directly. If somebody we hire falls down on the job, we can fire them without much fuss or muss. If we try to withhold payment from the IRS over the poor quality or unwanted nature of what we receive ... well ... things get unpleasant.

I think it's charming that Mr. Bernstein is so pleased with what he's receiving in return for his annual mugging. Taking pleasure in your abuse makes the whole experience so much more pleasant. In a sick way.

But we don't all feel that way. Many of us see what's taken from our paychecks, compare that to what's being done with the money, and bitterly resent the involuntary transaction. It's not just that we're left with so little money to seek superior alternatives; we also often actively oppose the things being done with our tax dollars.

I see little relief on the horizon, though. With the Congressional Budget Office projecting that federal expenditures will rise from roughly 18% of GDP today to almost 40% of GDP in 2075 -- mostly because of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid -- high(er) taxes are bound to be with us for a while.

That's why I hold out such high hope for rising noncompliance with the tax laws and the growing underground economy. I suspect that living in the shadows is going to become an increasingly attractive proposition in the years to come.



Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home