“The government who robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul,” George Bernard Shaw once said.
For a socialist Shaw demonstrated good sense with that quotation. Unfortunately, America has become a laboratory in which his hypothesis is being tested.
The theory of government I was taught says that government provides benefits, primarily security, to the entire population. In return we pay taxes. But lately the government has been a distributor of special privileges, taking money from some and giving it to others. America is now about evenly split between those who pay income taxes and those who consume them.
The Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center recently disclosed that close to half of all households will pay no income tax this year. Some will pay less than zero—that is, they’ll get money from those of us who do pay taxes.
The Tax Policy Center adds that this year the average income-tax rate for the bottom 40 percent of earners will be negative and that their cash subsidy will equal 10 percent of the total amount the income tax brings in, thanks to the Earned Income Tax Credit and President Obama’s “Making Work Pay” program.
The view from the top also shows the lopsidedness of the tax system. The top 20 percent of earners make about 53 percent of the income in America but pay 91 percent of the income tax. The top 1 percent pay 36 percent. The IRS says the bottom half of earners pay less than 3 percent.
How the Other Half Votes
This presents a serious problem because government has such vast powers to dispense favors. As Shaw suggested, people who pay no tax will not hesitate to vote for politicians who promise big spending. Why not? They will get stuff without having to pay for it.
Yes, working people who pay no income tax still pay taxes: sales tax and payroll (Social Security and Medicare) taxes. But the income tax is big and visible, so it’s a problem that a growing number of people don’t pay but get benefits from those who do.
Frédéric Bastiat, the great nineteenth-century French economist, defined the State as “that great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else.” I don’t know if he envisioned one half of the population living off the other half.
It’s important not to confuse the interests of the taxpayers with the interests of the politicians and other tax consumers. Yet that is done all the time. When the government bought toxic assets (of zero market value) from the banks, it said taxpayers would profit when the economy recovered and the assets once again commanded a positive price in the market. Even if we make the dubious assumption that the government is savvy enough to buy low and sell high, it’s not the taxpayers who would benefit from any profits. The politicians will spend every penny rather than cut taxes.
To put it bluntly, we are not the government.
The built-in unfairness of the tax system has prompted a range of tax-reform proposals, such as a flat tax and replacing the income tax with a sales tax. These alternatives are better, but they have their drawbacks, too. For that reason, there is something more urgent than tax reform: spending reform.
The true burden of government, the late Milton Friedman said, is not the tax level but the spending level. Taxation is just one way for the government to get money. The other ways—borrowing and inflation—are also burdens on the people. The best way to lighten the tax burden is to lessen the spending burden. If government spends less, it takes less. And if it takes less, the tax system will weigh less heavily on us all.
Once again, we find wisdom in Adam Smith: “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice: all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.”