Why We Pay With­out A Whim­per

The Washington Post Sunday - - World News - By Kevin Has­sett

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


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