Taxing Time

This article appeared in the Freeman.
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Income Tax Day is three months past, but only now are Americans finally finished paying for government. The Washington‐​based Tax Foundation reports that Tax Freedom Day, when people stop turning their earnings over to government, was May 9, the latest ever. Since 1992, reports the Foundation, “the tax burden borne by the average American has risen rapidly,” going from 121 days to 129 days.

Taxes are only the most visible form of government’s burden, however. Deficit spending, too, costs people. On top of that comes government regulation of all sorts. Americans for Tax Reform, an activist taxpayers’ group, estimates that it is the first week of July before people start laboring for themselves instead of government. In short, we spend more than half of our working lives financing government.

For believers in limited government, then, there is probably no more important task than constraining the growth of government spending, and that is most achievable by reversing the increase in taxes. What is needed is a threefold strategy of tax reform: reduction, accountability, and simplification.

Most important, Congress should lighten the tax burden, and the best means of doing so is to cut income tax rates across the board. The reason is simple–taxpayers deserve relief.

According to a recent Harris poll, 30 percent of Americans say that their taxes are “much too high.” Another 40 percent believe they are “somewhat too high.” And this huge majority is right.

At the beginning of the century, reports the Tax Foundation, Tax Freedom Day came on January 31. It bounced around March and April during the 1940s, gradually moved to the end of April by the 1970s, hit May the following decade, only to recede for a time, before starting its steady increase in 1993.

In many states the burden is even higher. New Yorkers work for government until May 23. Residents of Connecticut start earning money for themselves only a couple of days earlier. The luckiest taxpayers live in Louisiana, where Tax Freedom Day comes on April 26.

Taxes are the largest single component of the average American’s budget. People spend nearly two hours out of an eight‐​hour day to pay just Uncle Sam’s levies. Another hour of labor is consumed by state and local taxes. Only housing, at an hour and twenty minutes, comes close to the tax burden. (The costs of deficit spending and regulation are largely hidden from view, raising prices and interest rates.)

Of course, defenders of the expansive and expensive state argue that Americans receive a good return on their money. But today’s welfare/​warfare state operates primarily for the benefit of select interest groups rather than the general public. Nearly one‐​quarter of every tax dollar goes to Social Security, Uncle Sam’s faltering retirement system that is delivering an increasingly negative return while heading toward fiscal collapse.

One‐​fifth of the federal tax dollar covers health care, particularly Medicare and Medicaid. These programs are not only unnecessarily expensive, but have fueled price inflation in the private sector. Neither is sustainable over the long term. Another fifteen cents goes to interest, the price of past federal extravagance.

The income tax imposes more than a financial burden. A People magazine poll found that the most frightening words Americans imagined hearing over the phone were “This is the IRS calling.”

The biggest program that is truly a federal responsibility is national defense, which accounts for fifteen cents. But much of that goes to protecting other countries, particularly America’s populous and prosperous allies. Beyond that are a potpourri of programs that either aren’t government’s responsibility or are more expensive than need be. Some value for the tax dollar!

The fairest means to reduce the tax burden would be to slash tax rates for all Americans. Given a decade worth of tax hikes after the Reagan Administration’s early tax cuts, the reductions should be substantial–a third at least. Other good ideas include reducing capital gains and estate levies, which perversely punish the capital accumulation that is necessary for economic growth.

Reductions are not enough, however, for the 1980s proved that the pressure to hike levies is almost irresistible. Thus, the tax burden needs to be made more visible to people.

For instance, withholding, under which workers never see their earnings grabbed by government, should be eliminated. If taxpayers had to scramble to come up with the thousands of dollars necessary to satisfy Uncle Sam, they would realize just what a burden taxation had become. At the very least, the current withholding system should be replaced by a system of quarterly tax payments like that now used by the self‐​employed. In either case, workers would receive their full income, and only then pay the IRS.

At the same time companies should voluntarily implement the Right to Know Payroll as proposed by Michigan’s Mackinac Center. For each employee firms would list the overall payroll benefit level and subtract expenses that the employee never sees (payroll taxes, administrative costs), yielding the traditional gross pay number. If politicians won’t voluntarily subject their handiwork to public scrutiny, business should help expose it.

Moreover, election day should be moved to the first Tuesday after the second Monday of April. Then taxpayers would see how much of their income had been seized by government before voting. They would feel the real cost of the supposed benefits being provided by spendthrift politicians, enabling them to make a truly informed electoral choice. In contrast, elections now fall seven months after tax day.

Finally, Congress should move toward either a flat income tax or a national sales tax. The first would greatly simplify the task of figuring out what was due. The second would essentially eliminate the individual compliance burden, along with intrusive IRS enforcement practices.

The latter is particularly important. The income tax imposes more than a financial burden. A People magazine poll found that the most frightening words Americans imagined hearing over the phone were “This is the IRS calling.” Evidence continues to emerge on how various presidents have used the tax agency against their political enemies. Only slightly less obnoxious are the 1500‐​plus (currently admitted) instances of freelance snooping. A free people should not live in fear of virtually unaccountable bureaucrats who can delve into the most intimate details of their finances.

Indeed, Dan Mitchell of the Heritage Foundation has come up with 577,951,692,634 reasons for tax reform. He points to the 136,000 federal employees who enforce the tax law and the $13.7 billion they spend doing so. There are 8 billion pages of forms and instructions issued by the IRS, 5.5 million words in the tax code, and 33 million penalty notices sent out annually. There are 8.5 million wrong answers given to taxpayers calling the IRS for help. There’s the $31 billion spent and to be spent by the IRS to modernize its computer system. The $157 billion in compliance costs for individuals and businesses. And much, much more.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.