What if we had personal control over our taxes? Or, alternatively, we had to pay them, but had nominal control over where they went? I asked this of my friends, and got some really interesting feedback. It’s a good starting point.
First, there are pretty clearly three, or three-and-a-half tiers to consider here.
The Basic Options
Full Voluntary Tax Burden
In this scenario, everyone would choose what they paid in taxes. This is unlikely to be feasible, but one interesting thing I noted was that my liberal friends seemed to think they wouldn’t pay taxes if they didn’t have to, and my conservative friends seemed to feel people would. I have no idea what to make of that, really. In any case, it doesn’t seem especially workable.
Fixed Burden, Control of Funds
In this scenario, you’d still pay your fixed tax burden, but you’d have control over where they went. For example, if you owed ten thousand in taxes, you could send five to the National Parks Service, two to the Department of Education, two to the Military, and one to Medicare. And so on.
There are some really great pros and cons to this. The cons are pretty clear; how much funding do you think the IRS is going to receive? The pros are quite powerful, though; try to imagine a world where American citizens have direct control over how their taxes are spent, but the Veterans Administration can’t afford healthcare for returning soldiers, NASA doesn’t have a space shuttle, and the National Parks Service has to close for a couple weeks. Can you? Because I can’t.
Fixed Burden, Hybrid System
The fact of the matter–and there seems to be a wide agreement on this point–is that some things we need to spend money on just aren’t sexy enough to fare well in a popularity contest. This leads to the third system, which is the hybrid. Herein, a certain amount of tax money is not discretionary. It is down to elected representatives to decide how this money is spent.
The rest of the money is held in the hands of the taxpayer. This is the system we’re going to explore, because it seems like the one that might actually work, and we’re going to do so on several different scales.
The Salient Points
The Prediction Problem
One of the biggest pitfalls of this system is that it will make it very hard to predict budgets . . . at first. How can you accurately project longterm costs and expenditures if they are at the whim of the capricious public?
I think this will be a huge problem . . . at first. After a few years, it will likely be more predictable than the current system, since what gets funding won’t be at the mercy of special interests and political brinkmanship. Public opinion on many subjects is very stable, and it’s unlikely, barring major changes that would necessitate budget changes in any case, that wild swings would occur.
One of the strongest objections to this whole idea was summed up by one of my friends as, “You think balancing the budget is hard now?!” I would counter that we haven’t had a balanced budget in a decade-and-a-half, an official budget from either controlling party since 2009, and we’ve failed to even keep the current budget operating once, nearly three times, in the past two years. The argument that we shouldn’t replace a broken system because the new one might break seems . . . hollow.
The Flexibility Problem
Even if the system does reach stability, there is the possibility that it will be too slow to react to a major crisis, such as a war, health crisis, or financial drop, and this stability may be a real weakness, if it produces a system which cannot easily respond to any incoming emergency. Of course, we might avoid such timely and retrospectively wise decisions as countering the military threat of Iraq in 2003 or giving several trillion dollars to bankers in 2009. All snark aside, there is a certain level rapid response required, and some method of actionable response to crises is critical to any (long term) functioning government. If there were permanent voting centers, the Senate calling an emergency authorization vote would work. I’m sure there are other possible protocols which would circumvent the problem; it simply must be acknowledged so that one of them can be implemented.
The Apathy Problem
People don’t care about the issues. Right? I mean, I don’t care, that’s why I’m writing this, and you don’t care, that’s why you’re reading this, and the nation at large doesn’t care, that’s why there three huge television news channels running 24 hours a day. That’s why, in the last election, only (slightly less than) seven out of ten eligible voters took time out of their day to go vote.
That’s the main reason we still need people who do care to go and do the work: if people cared enough to research the issues and vote, we could just phase out representative democracy entirely in favor of the direct form. Sadly, that will never happen, because no one cares. Our elected representatives don’t agree on much, but they are unanimous in that, at least.
Sure, but I’ve caught a suspicion, or maybe a blind hope, that people will care a little more in a system where caring matters. And if I’m wrong, we can account for this by making the discretionary aspect default to the elected representatives in absence of direction, e.g. if you want to give one thousand to the military, and don’t specify where the other nine goes, it goes into the general use pool.
In other words, the people who don’t care go on as they always have, and the people that do care have a say in the system. Besides, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen evidence that most the people in power of a vested interest in more than staying in power. Even an apathetic idiot has more of a stake in fixing Social Security than your Congressman who’s drawing from his own special system.
I think the biggest advantage to this idea is obvious: the increase in control this gives individuals. In our current system, if 51% of the people in your district disagree with you on what tax priorities should be, since their guy holds the purse. For example, there are five million voting conservatives in California, and three million voting liberals in Texas–how much say do you think these people have in how their taxes are spent?
Under this system, the winning side would still have more influence, but individuals would have a say in how things are spent. An environmentalist in a coal mining district could still put money towards alternative energy research or environmental improvements. A conservative man living in a liberal district could still direct money towards paying down the deficit, or military research, and so on. Better yet, a person who isn’t a cardboard cutout of a focus group could put her money towards alternative energy and paying down the deficit.
The problem with greater control by the people is, of course, less accountability, and the potential to be influenced by ad campaigns and PR. I think the last is a moot point in the Citizens United age, but multiple people brought it up in discussions, so it deserves mention. The lack of accountability is the main concern I see.
I’ll go one step further than that, however: Yes, this system involves trusting average people to do research, care, and make smart choices. However, when you trust your elected representative to make a decision, you are, in fact, just trusting the people who elected her or him to have done the research, cared, and made the smart choice. You’re in the same boat either way; only this way, you have a hand on the tiller.
A Step Towards True Democracy
This is a step towards greater democracy of a sort that was impossible at the founding of this country, but technology has rendered feasible.
You need representatives in a world of horse drawn buggies, and two month mail delivery times. That’s a fact. It’s either that or anarchy. Today, though, we could have permanent polling stations, and democratic control of most issues. We would still need representatives, and experts to draft the legislation, but we could–in principle–run this entire country, easily, without them. I don’t mean to open up debate on whether that would be a good idea, just that it’s technically feasible.
A Final Thought
I’ve talked mostly about the practical considerations here. This will help blunt the influence of big money and Citizens United. This will alleviate the practical issue of all-or-nothing districts where nearly half the participants are rendered voiceless each election by the larger group. This will make our massive democracy more sophisticated in reflecting the interest of individuals than two party platform rule could possibly hope to. And so on. In theory, all taxes are voluntary, and our budgets are determined by people representing our interests . . . so this whole change would simply be a streamlining of the system.
There is an ethical component as well. I am not a pacifist, but I think not forcing pacifists to pay for wars is the ethically superior option if possible. I am not against abortion, but I think not forcing people morally opposed to abortions to pay for them is the ethically superior option if possible. We live in the real world. Sometimes, we need people to pay for things they don’t want . . . but I believe the United States should emphasize ethical responsibility in government, something it has been failing miserably at for awhile now.
The simple truth is, money is power, and any time we, as a people, have the chance to give more power to the people of this country, we have an ethical responsibility to consider this. I maintain the burden of proof should not be on the side of those asking for more freedom, but on those who say it doesn’t belong to us–that they are better than ordinary men, and so we must surrender our own right to choose.
What I’m saying is that the question’s not, “Should we let people control their own taxes?” so much as, “What is the overwhelming reason we would deny them that right entirely?”
If the powerful want to keep that right exclusively, let them prove that this system is flawed. Of course, the only way to do that is to allow it to be tested in the real world–but hey, if it’s going to be such a miserable disaster, they won’t have any trouble getting us to give that power back, right?
What do you think? Good idea? Bad idea? Got a way to make it better?