The late George Stigler, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, is famous in part because of his work on “regulatory capture,” which occurs when interest groups use the coercive power of government to thwart competition and undeservedly line their own pockets. A perfect (and distasteful) example of this can be found in today’s Washington Post, which reports that the IRS plans to impose new regulations dictating who can prepare tax returns. Not surprisingly, the new rules have the support of big tax preparation shops such as H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt, which see this as an opportunity to squeeze smaller competitors out of the market. The IRS and the big firms claim more regulations are needed to protect consumers from shoddy work, but this is the usual rationale for licensing laws and other government-imposed barriers to entry and the Institute for Justice has repeatedly shown such rules are designed to benefit insiders rather than consumers.
Tax preparers do make many mistakes, to be sure, but that is a reflection of a nightmarish tax code, and the annual tax test conducted by Money magazine showed that even the most-skilled professionals – such as CPAs, tax lawyers, and enrolled agents – were unable to figure out how to correctly fill out a hypothetical family’s tax return. But since the IRS routinely makes major mistakes as well, perhaps the moral of the story is that we need fundamental tax reform, not IRS rules to create a cartel for the benefit of H&R Block and other big firms. Would any of this be an issue if we had a flat tax or national sales tax?