The recent April 15 tax-filing deadline brings forth the yearly ominous reminder that there is nothing certain except “death and taxes.” Perhaps the adage should be more optimistically couched as “life and taxes.”
Ideally, paying one’s taxes should be correlated in some degree to a personalized bill from the government to provide services and security necessary to allow an individual beneficiary maximum liberty in the “pursuit of [his/her] happiness.”
In essence, it is a contract as to what services are essential at what price, enforceable by the legislative actions of elected representatives as implemented by the elected governing executives at the federal, state, and local level. No taxation leads to societal chaos; excessive taxation leads to suffocation of individual liberty, opportunity, and responsibility. Successful governance requires a fairly delicate balancing by our elected officials of essential services for protecting essential liberties for our populace.
The Founders clearly understood the importance of this delicate balancing. The rebellion of the Colonies was not over the imposition of new taxes per se, but to their imposition without representation from the long-established Colonial legislatures and for a purpose (funding British troops stationed in North America) not favored by many colonists. In effect, the Lockean contract between the British government and its American subjects became broken, leading to revolution its Declaration of Independence as the appropriate remedy.
Our current leaders and the public at large should keep this delicate balance in mind as they attempt to govern and elected governing representatives. A significant reason for the rapid spread and continued recurrence of tea party rallies is that, according to a recent poll conducted by the New York Times, a quarter of the American public strongly believes that government is doing too many things harmful to individual liberties at a overwhelming costs to the American public that will further limit individual liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and ultimately life desirable to live.
Another recent poll by Pew Charitable Trust reveals that though 80 percent of the American public do not trust government, 40 percent of those polled want the same untrustworthy government to do more, while 50 percent favor less government. To add to the confusion of American public opinion on the relative role of governance and individual liberty, the Economist magazine recently cites a survey that suggests over 60 percent of Americans want to run their own business.
What to make of this pulsing of American society?
First, a significant portion of our populace has not clearly discern the inescapable linkage between the provision of government services and the bill payers for these services. Political obfuscation, inflated sense of personal entitlement, and the labyrinthine complexities of the tax and financing systems all contribute to public confusion. However, when the political smog is penetrated, this simple stark fact is revealed: increased government services can be paid long-termed by increasing the public debt, now at $1.6 trillion just for 2010. Furthermore, a shrinking minority of our society is now paying the bills for the rest of us who receive services without personal cost. These trends are economically, politically, and socially unsustainable.
Second, government’s bill to the American “consumer”, the individual taxpayer, should be more clearly presented through reform of the tax code. Simplicity and straightforwardness should be overriding objectives—if achieved, it would spark increased compliance, reduced costs of doing business, increased transparency of governments’ financial books, and ultimately enhance the public ‘s trust. The federal tax code, with its current eight million words, should be radically pared to no longer that the United States Constitution. When the current IRS commissioner, the country’s chief tax collector, publicly admits, as he did several months ago on national television, that the tax code is too complicated for him to prepare personally his own taxes, imagine how frustrated and overwhelmed the average taxpayer is. When current top financial officials in the federal executive and legislative branches have public exposure for failure to pay their tax obligations, imagine how embittered the average bill-paying person is about paying his/her “fair share.”
It is time to refocus and restore the delicate balance between life and taxes. Set taxes simply and straightforwardly to pay for only those services essential to preserving individual liberties. This is the single most important responsibility our representatives and we the people who elect them face.
Alex Beehler is the Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Environment, Safety & Occupational Health) at the United States Department of Defense.