Commentary

Limited Government Requires That Everyone Pay Some Taxes

Even failed candidates sometimes had good ideas. So it was with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. He sharply challenged conventional wisdom when he proposed a tax reform plan that ensured everyone paid at least some income tax.

His bottom rate was just 2%. But he’d have killed most of the deductions and credits that allow those with low incomes to pay nothing. Jindal’s idea should outlive his candidacy because other GOP presidential wannabes propose going the other way.

Jeb Bush would double the standard deduction, figuring another 15 million Americans would “no longer bear any income-tax liability.”

Donald Trump would do much the same. He figured that the percentage of households paying no income tax would rise from 36% to 50%, knocking 31 million households off of the rolls.

In fact, the Tax Policy Center figures that already 45.3% of American households — 77.5 million out of 171.3 million — won’t pay any income tax this year. Trump’s plan would probably push that to well over half.

The current nonpayers are divided roughly equally between those who don’t earn enough money and those who are eligible for credits and deductions which offset their earnings.

Indeed, refundable tax credits have turned an increasing number of “taxpayers” into tax consumers.

The idea of cutting taxes to nothing, especially on those who don’t earn much, is superficially attractive.

The idea of cutting taxes to nothing, especially on those who don’t earn much, is superficially attractive. But it’s actually dangerous for a democratic republic, especially one based on limited government and individual rights.

As Jindal explained: “We simply must require that every American has some skin in this game. If we have generations of Americans who never pay any taxes, it will be very easy for them to turn a blind eye to absurd government spending.”

His point was simple but powerful. If government programs don’t obviously cost you something, there’s no reason to be against government programs. Even stupid ones, so long as you perceive some possible benefit from them. It’s a form of “fiscal illusion.”

Of course, many who don’t pay income taxes are hit by payroll taxes. But income taxes are the most visible federal levy. They also are what formally funds most of the programs received by nonpayers.

Although in truth tax revenues are fungible, the payroll tax typically is seen as dedicated to Social Security and Medicare. Thus, someone who opposes a payroll tax hike still might embrace a tax-and-spend policy based on the income tax.

The Tax Foundation concluded: “Basic economic theory tells us that consumers will respond to a drop in the price of a product by demanding more. By extension, economists predict that as the price of government goes down for a citizen, he or she will then demand more of it.”

That certainly appears to be our experience. The federal income tax was permanently established only a century ago and dramatically expanded during World War II. Since then, it has become the engine of big government growth.

Of course, government expenditures have risen year in and year out, irrespective of the share of nonpayers. The system’s overall bias toward an expanded state may overwhelm any additional impact from the rising number of nonpayers.

Nevertheless, the Tax Foundation recorded a stronger relationship between that number and transfer payments: “After the late 1960s, with the start of the Great Society programs, the growth of transfer payments and the growth of nonpayers begin to move closer together.”

Indeed, “over the past 25 years, the two trends seem to track each other quite closely, with both reaching their 60-year peak in 2009 and 2010.”

This suggests that real tax reform, while simplifying and reducing taxes, also should ensure a minimum level of burden-sharing by everyone, including lower-income workers.

The wealthy already pay the vast majority of income taxes. The top 1% of taxpayers paid 38.1% in 2012 (the latest available figures). The top 5% were responsible for 58.9%, and the top 10% paid 70.2% of income tax collections.

Thus, proposals to massively expand the welfare state by shaking a bit of change loose from the pockets of the rich are a delusion. Expanding the number of nonpayers inevitably increases the burden on fewer and fewer payers.

Jindal won’t be president, but he got tax reform right. As he explained, “in America, everyone is expected to help row the boat. Independence, not dependence, is the root of the American dream. It’s time we had the guts to say so in public.” He did. The rest of the presidential candidates should follow.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Reagan.