Why We Pay Without A Whimper
Early American history was a conservative’s nirvana: It was one long tax revolt.
The British imposed taxes on everything from molasses to tea, and Americans smuggled the molasses, tossed the tea into a harbor and reached for their muskets. Thomas Jefferson’s incendiary Declaration of Independence listed King George III’s basest transgressions; prominent among them was that he had “sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.” The descendants of those royal minions are now, of course, nestled in thousands of cubicles in Internal Revenue Service offices across the country.
Looking at that history, it’s astonishing how low the taxes were. Talk about men being men. One historian estimated the combined burden of the infamous “Navigation Acts,” for example, to be 1 percent of income. The other assorted taxes added up to about the same, making the total bite a measly 2 percent. And that set off a war. Today taxes eat up about 30 percent of income, a much heavier burden. And like our ancestors, we don’t believe that our money is particularly well spent. A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken last April found that Americans believe that 51 cents of every tax dollar is wasted. But where’s the outrage? Most of us don’t even own muskets, and the few of us who have revolted against the IRS are settled safely behind bars, to popular acclaim.
Which makes the U.S. tax system, ugly as it is, something of a marvel. It raises revenue without raising a ruckus. A simpler and more efficient system would undeniably serve everyone better, but the current hodgepodge is so entrenched as to have become a political third rail, and attempts to reform it almost always fail or are gradually reversed. Witness Ronald Reagan’s Tax Reform Act of 1986.
Like a finch in the Galapagos Islands, the tax code has gradually evolved in a manner that maximizes its chances for survival. So a natural history of our tax system provides an interesting mirror on ourselves and reveals some surprising facts.
Perhaps the most contentious