On Taxes

In the GOP debate, Donald Trump apparently said the following: “We’ve had a graduated tax system for many years, so it’s not a socialistic thing.”

Well, it all depends on what the tax money is paying for.

The fact of taxes (on income, on property, on capital gains, on whatever) is ideologically neutral. Post-agriculture, all functioning societies have had a ruling elite that extracts a portion of wealth or tribute from everyone else in order to pay for the sorts of things that maintain a functioning society. No one likes paying taxes, but they do it because that’s how roads and sewers get built.

Similarly, no one likes paying more taxes than someone else has to pay, but they won’t complain about it (within reason) as long as they sense their tax dollars are funding things they want to see, like better roads and better sewers.

Whether the issue is flat or progressive taxation, then, it’s a grin-and-bear-it situation . . .

. . . until the governing elite starts using tax dollars to pay for things you don’t approve of. Then you’re pissed and all of a sudden taxation takes on an ideological hue. If the governing elite uses  tax dollars to pay for things no one approves of, then everyone’s pissed and there’s a revolution. Most of the time, though, some people are pissed and others aren’t and that’s when you realize that fights over “taxes” in general are really fights about what the money should be spent on.

Progressive income taxes were historically passed into law to pay for war. William Pitt the Younger signed into law the UK’s first graduated income tax (the first income tax full stop) to fight the left-wing French revolutionaries. Abe Lincoln introduced the progressive income tax in America to fund his fight against the Southern states. In all likelihood, one’s willingness to grin-and-bear-it was predicated on one’s support or opposition to these wars and whom the tax money was ultimately killing.

The idea that progressive taxation alleviates income inequality is post-WWII because the alleviation has absolutely nothing to do with progressive taxation and everything to do with early twentieth century social welfare programs. If USG never taxed poor people, taxed the hell out of rich people, but spent all the tax revenue on hookers and blow for Congress, then the progressive income tax would not do much to alleviate inequalities between rich and poor. The idea that progressive taxation alleviates inequality exists because USG does not spend its income on hookers and blow but on social welfare programs that allow poor people to buy hookers and blow.

Tea Party conservatives and libertarians are therefore retarded or naive, or maybe both, when they whine about taxation in general. The argument has never been about taxation—its levels, its brackets, and so on—but about what tax money should and should not be spent on. Calls for “less taxation” from the conservative side are just veiled complaints about tax money being spent on poor people. Progressives, to their credit, are at least honest about things and usually complain specifically about tax money being spent on the military. To them, every B-2 built or maintained represents a whole lot of food stamps that will never be used to buy Doritos and vodka.

To construct a sense of “buy-in,” and to stop these idiotic conversations about taxes in general, my ideal state would have the good sense to let each citizen decide how his tax money is to be spent. Each year, a citizen would submit his taxes along with a form—let’s call it the Taxation Investment Form—with a dozen or so categories that could be “checked” with a certain percentage of tax money allotted. This could be done with every form of major tax: state, federal, income, property, estate, and so on (I would perhaps exclude sales tax). A citizen would essentially earmark what state services and programs he wants to fund and which ones he doesn’t want to fund. If he wants all his tax money to go to social welfare programs, so it goes. If he wants all his tax money to go to the military, so it goes. If he wants half his tax money to go to the military and the other half to go to infrastructure development, so it goes.

Under this highly democratic scenario, I doubt anyone would care all that much about his tax bracket, and we could justly say that every society would get the society it deserves. At the very least, it would probably get rid of universal health care for politicians.

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6 comments
  1. Well, no. Lots of people are still bothered by how inefficient government spending is. I might like infrastructure spending in general, but that doesn’t mean the Bridge to Nowhere warms the cockles of my heart. Or, in principle I might favor education spending, but not believe that maintaining a vast education bureaucracy is all that worth while.

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    • “Inefficient government spending” is just short-hand for “things the government is spending money on that I don’t want it to spend money on,” except that phrase typically denotes detailed elements of government programs rather than government programs full stop (e.g., you’re okay with government expenditures on education but against government expenditures on x number of administrators to oversee education expenditure).

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  2. Hurlock said:

    You say tea-party conservatives and libertarians are naive because they want to cut taxes in general, but then you go on to propose this:
    “To construct a sense of “buy-in,” and to stop these idiotic conversations about taxes in general, my ideal state would have the good sense to let each citizen decide how his tax money is to be spent. Each year, a citizen would submit his taxes along with a form—let’s call it the Taxation Investment Form—with a dozen or so categories that could be “checked” with a certain percentage of tax money allotted. This could be done with every form of major tax: state, federal, income, property, estate, and so on (I would perhaps exclude sales tax). A citizen would essentially earmark what state services and programs he wants to fund and which ones he doesn’t want to fund. If he wants all his tax money to go to social welfare programs, so it goes. If he wants all his tax money to go to the military, so it goes. If he wants half his tax money to go to the military and the other half to go to infrastructure development, so it goes.”

    When you seriously think about it, which proposal is more likely to be preferred by politicians – cutting taxes in general or citizens being able to choose where their tax money go to? Your option will be infinitely more scary to any bureaucrat out there, which is why it is much more naive to think that it has a higher chance of getting passed than a simple cut.

    The fact that the citizen cannot decide where his money go to when he is taxed is pretty much the whole point of taxation to begin with. Any politician would rather have less money to redistribute than to be forced to redistribute more money in a manner not decided upon by himself.

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    • Your option will be infinitely more scary to any bureaucrat out there, which is why it is much more naive to think that it has a higher chance of getting passed than a simple cut.

      Yes, that’s the whole point.

      The fact that the citizen cannot decide where his money go to when he is taxed is pretty much the whole point of taxation to begin with.

      Fair enough, but if if this were pointed out to the citizenry, their answer would not be to get rid of taxation full stop but to implement a program like mine. Taxation is necessary, and I think most people know that. But you’re right that my system will never be implemented because it takes away too much power from the state and its political elite.

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