Another widely resented Tax Day has come and gone. And as income gaps continue to widen, fueled in large part by government's intentional redistribution of wealth from the poor and middle classes to the country's economic elite, it's time to pose an obvious but seldom-asked question: Why do so many people pay their income taxes?
This is not a rhetorical question. Low-, middle-, and even upper-middle-income people get far less back in services and benefits from the federal government than they pay in; and the extremely wealthy—the top 1 percent—get far more. Military spending, non-military corporate welfare, and interest on the national debt alone account for something like 60 percent of the discretionary federal budget each year.
The impact is even greater when considering how much money isn't in the budget in the first place because of what the rich don't pay. Corporations and high-income folks get more tax breaks each year—another capital gains reduction is the latest—and why not, considering they largely pay for the campaigns of the politicians who enact these laws. The percentage of income taxes paid by corporations (as opposed to individuals) has declined from 25 percent to 8 percent in the last 40 years, by far the lowest of Western democracies. Meanwhile, already-inadequate social spending continues to be gutted, and more and more prisons get built to hold the people who can't cope.
Again in 1999, the very rich are richer while everyone else's wages lag. Governments, bought and paid for, are one of the primary mechanisms for this wealth transfer. Ordinary citizens today have little meaningful choice or input on almost any important public policy issue at the state level, and none nationally. One look at Seattle's congressional representatives tells the story. We have Slade Gorton, who had the sheer nerve last re-election to tell us he worked for us when, among other things, he received more money from the timber industry than any other member of Congress—and that was just a small piece of his Fortune 500 support. Throw in some unions and the story's not much different for Patty Murray. On the House side, there's Jim McDermott, whose one-party district seat is so safe until death that he can claim earnest liberalism while fetching water for Boeing at every chance. All three excel at constituent service, but demand representation on a substantive policy issue and you will be patted politely on the head and told (in so many words) that the big boys and girls know best.
Sad thing is, most places are about the same, or worse. The stockholder model—one dollar, one share, one vote—has very nearly become what's left of representative democracy in the United States. Ordinary citizens disproportionately pay for it, but we have lost our voice.
Two hundred twenty or so years ago this was called "taxation without representation" and we threw out the government. We celebrate this tradition, but we don't take it seriously.
But what if we refused? The federal government in particular is vulnerable; the income tax system is based on voluntary compliance, and the IRS—though fearsome in its media-assisted reputation—is essentially a very large, and often cumbersome, collection agency. People laugh off collection agency bills simply because they don't want to pay (or can't), but quake in terror of the IRS—an institution now dedicated at its highest levels to enriching its patrons even if it means silencing, impoverishing, imprisoning, or even killing you. We are volunteering to buy the bullets for our firing squads.
This isn't a Freemen- or Posse Comitatustype question of the legitimacy of taxation. Quite the opposite; it's specifically because portions of everyone's labor should contribute to the collective well-being of the community (rather than, say, Paul Allen's net worth) that our current tax system is ethically bankrupt. (Washington state, with its reliance on regressive sales and property taxes, is, among states, one of the worst.) The issue here is where the money is going, how it's being spent, and how the spending decisions are made. It's a measure of how much money is collected each year that we can all see tangible benefits of federal spending in our daily lives, but don't recognize how much more is being spent on more C-130 transport planes, subsidies for Microsoft's overseas marketing, or payments on the S&L fiasco.
Beyond the tax evaders motivated simply by sloth or greed, a few folks say no for reasons of principle. There are the constitutionalists, who insist for a variety of reasons that the income tax is illegal. There are the conscientious objectors, who argue that since refusal to kill for their country is a recognized right, they should also not be compelled to pay for someone else to kill for them. Not surprisingly, federal courts almost never agree with either argument. Both camps, as well as the portion of the "simple living" movement that operates below taxable incomes, have more credibility when they redirect their money to pay for community services and other programs the feds should pay for, but don't.
These are relatively marginal movements. The major focus of anti-tax sentiment in the US is on how much individuals pay—not where it's going, and whether such high jinks should be paid for at all. As the ideal of representative democracy we all learned in civics class continues to slip away, the risks of not paying are increasingly balanced by the risks of paying. How long will people cooperate?