Commentary

Tax Freedom Day

Reprinted with permission from Copley News Service.

It’s taken the longest ever, but Americans are finally working for themselves. TFD (Tax Freedom Day), when the average taxpayer can relax after paying off the tribute demanded by politicians from city hall to Capitol Hill, occurred on May 11.

On this issue, at least, Bill Clinton is nothing if not consistent. Since 1992, TFD has been on the march.

Seven years ago, it was April 29. But President Clinton quickly worked his magic. TFD advanced a day in 1993, then two days in 1994.

It rose a day each of the next two years, followed by two successive two-day jumps, and then a three-day leap last year. The good news is that the 1999 increase was just one day.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Tax Foundation, the steady rise is attributable to two factors: ”the federal tax increases that were enacted during the early 1990s,” and ”the continued economic expansion which, because of the structure of the current tax system, tends to fill government coffers faster than Americans’ pocketbooks.”

If anyone doubts the price of ”progress,” he need only view TFD over the years. It was Jan. 31, 1902. Americans worked just one month for government, compared to more than four months today. TFD never ran later than April 7 during the depths of World War II and April 10 in the Korean War.

But Americans were working for the government up into mid-April by the 1960s and until the end of April by the 1970s. Clinton initiated the steady march into May. So much for his empty promise that ”the era of Big Government is over.”

Of course, TFD is merely an average. Government’s burden weighs even heavier in some jurisdictions.

Appropriately, Washington, D.C., is the worst, at May 23. Residents of Connecticut and New York don’t finish paying taxes until May 22. Minnesota’s citizens get off one day earlier. TFD in New Jersey and Wisconsin comes on May 18. It is May 17 in Washington.

Of course, government’s allies (typically interest groups feasting off the public and ideological groups dedicated to manipulating the public) dismiss TFD. They claim that we get a good return on the disappearing 35.7 percent of our incomes.

But compare the burden of taxes to other expenditures. The average American spends two hours and 51 minutes of every eight-hour day working for government. That’s nearly three times as much time as he or she spends on housing and more than three times as much as devoted to health care.

People have to work 41 minutes for food and spend 33 minutes of their day on transportation. Recreation accounts for barely 24 minutes.

Moreover, TFD only measures the money we pay government. Throw in compliance costs and people won’t finish working for politicians until May 23.

Even this horrendous number might seem reasonable if the United States was in the midst of a crisis that only government could solve. But government is the fount of most problems, not the solution.

With the end of the Cold War, there is no serious threat to American security. Most of the defense budget is devoted to protecting populous and prosperous allies (Europe, Japan, South Korea), attempting to create artificial nations and rebuild failed societies (Bosnia, Haiti), and intervening in irrelevant civil wars (Kosovo).

The domestic front is no better. Despite their near-universal support, Medicare and Social Security have made the elderly dependent on government, while impoverishing taxpayers and threatening the nation’s fiscal future. The public school monopoly teaches neither facts nor values.

Scores of welfare programs have unintentionally destroyed families and communities. Unending billions are squandered on business subsidies everything from agricultural aid to sports stadiums to export loans. Even the wealthy have their hands in the till, receiving free yacht inspections from the Coast Guard and grants for their favorite operas from the National Endowment for the Arts.

For all this, we are yielding over one-third of our incomes, and working an extra two weeks to handle the resulting paperwork? There are some necessary functions of government, of course, but they are minimal compared to what public agencies actually do. Government seems most likely to act where there is no public interest involved.

There may be no better measure of the failure of the Republican Party than the fact TFD continues to creep upward. The GOP Congress could be forgiven had it actually passed serious tax reduction, only to have it vetoed by Clinton. But Republicans aren’t even trying to alleviate the taxpayers’ burden.

Today, politicians in Washington are squabbling over how to spend record budget surpluses. With Tax Freedom Day moving ever later, it’s time for them to start refunding the money they’ve been overcharging the American people for years.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.