Today, the day American taxpayers wonder if the federal government is really worth all the money and hassle, I have an article at the Washington Post on how to give taxpayers more control.
Why shouldn’t taxpayers make direct decisions about how much money they want to spend on other government programs, like paying off the national debt, the war in Iraq or the National Endowment for the Arts? This would force the federal government to focus time and resources on projects citizens actually want, not just efforts that appeal to special interests.
To do this, we’d have to expand the concept of the campaign financing checkoff to all government programs. With this reform, the real expression of popular democracy would take place not every four years but every April 15. A new final page of the 1040 form would be created, called 1040-D (for democracy). At the top, the taxpayer would write in his total tax as determined by the 1040 form. Following would be a list of government programs, along with the percentage of the federal budget devoted to each (as proposed by Congress and the president). The taxpayer would then multiply that percentage by his total tax to determine the “amount requested” in order to meet the government’s total spending request. (Computerization of tax returns has made this step simple.) The taxpayer would then consider that request and enter the amount he was willing to pay for that program in the final column–the amount requested by the government, or more, or less, down to zero.
A taxpayer who thinks that $600 billion is too much to spend on military in the post-Cold War era could choose to allocate less to that function than the government requested. A taxpayer who thinks that Congress has been underfunding Head Start and the arts could allocate double the requested amount for those programs….
Real budget democracy, of course, means not just that the taxpayers can decide where their money will go but also that they can decide how much of their money the government is entitled to. Thus the last line on the 1040-D form must be “Tax refund.” The form would indicate that none of the taxpayer’s duly calculated tax should be refunded to him; but under budget democracy the taxpayer would have the right to allocate less than the amount requested for some or all programs in order to claim a refund (beyond whatever excess withholding is already due him).
I regret that space considerations required the loss of my historical context:
Ever since Magna Carta, signed 800 years ago this spring, the Anglo-American tradition of fiscal policy has been that the people would decide how much of their money they would give to government. Parliament arose as a representative body to which the Crown would appeal for funds. The monarch had to explain why he or she was seeking more funds–and Parliament frequently rejected the request as frivolous, wasteful, or actually injurious to the commonweal.
Today, of course, we can’t count on the legislative branch to guard our tax dollars, and technology makes it easier for us to direct them ourselves.