Tax Day: The undeclared national holiday wherein our political leaders gleefully embrace their roles in The Roman Empire II: Mr. Caesar Goes to Washington by demanding we prostrate ourselves at the altar of government, nervously burning incense to IRS-teria, the God of Audits. And all this toil, trouble, and worry is supposed to be made copasetic by the fact that the Post Office is open a few hours later than usual.
In libertarian and traditional conservative circles, defiantly quoting Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall’s adage, “The power to tax is the power to destroy,” may still be considered hip but it’s fallen hopelessly out of fashion elsewhere. Moderate Republicans swoon with their liberal brethren in the presence of the income tax windfall and neoconservatives would probably agree to have us paying Jimmy Carter tax rates if it meant they could invade Syria, Iran, and… well, you get the point. Massive spending salved with talk of fiscal discipline is in; spending cuts and meaningful tax reform, passe.
Nevertheless, in honor of tax day, let’s get back on the horse one more time and argue for a massive overhaul of the U.S. tax system, shall we? Specifically the abolition of the federal income tax in favor of a national sales tax with exemptions for essential items such as food, clothing, and housing. Right now such a step may seem unduly radical considering how complacently most Americans accept the weekly arbitrary seizure of their income. It’s true: As with any significant change, it will not be an easy sell. The “devil you know” and all that.
Still, this is a plan that should be able to be sold to both sides of the political spectrum because it addresses their self-declared concerns. (Whether either party actually wants solutions that would force them to write up arduous new talking points memos is another issue.) Upper middle class liberals and finely pedigreed conservatives alike currently define federal benevolence by how much of our money they give back to us at the end of the year. Real tax reform would finally allow the public to call politicians on the sugary class war rhetoric they’ve been peddling for years.
Simply put, a national sales tax would translate to a world in which rich and poor alike will decide their own level of taxation. Replacing the income tax with the sales tax is often portrayed as the riskiest of risky schemes. But what is the risk? Is the risk that rich people will stop buying expensive things, sending the whole nation into anarchy? Not likely. Ask Chinese manufacturers how much Americans enjoy buying stuff. Or is the risk that taxes will no longer exist in the dominion of the powerful but rather in the dominion of the people?
IN A POST-INCOME TAX WORLD if you’re having a hard week or are having trouble making ends meet you could easily avoid shelling out the extra cash to Uncle Sam. It’s worth noting that taking $70 dollars out of a single mother’s paycheck every week, aside from being counterintuitive, is not kind, benevolent, or any other of the adjectives the powers that be enjoy attributing to themselves. Those struggling financially need money now, not a year from now when the government finally figures out they couldn’t afford to dish it out in the first place. For those on the edge of poverty struggling with every bill, such a boon to their weekly check could make a huge difference in their quality of life.
A national sales tax would eliminate the tax loopholes that most politicians are too busy using to ever think of actually closing. There would be no more tax evasion because tax evasion (i.e. not buying stuff you don’t need) would be perfectly legal. It would also end the new back door welfare and income redistribution currently being pushed by both parties under the euphemistic banner of “Tax cuts for the working class.” In reality, these “tax cuts” entail massive tax return payouts to people who pay no taxes whatsoever. No more income tax, no more problem. If Congress wants to reinstitute the sort of large scale welfare program Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich agreed to end, they’ll have to be upfront about it rather than hiding behind prettily worded press releases.
There is something bigger — a rejection of authority and wariness about state power — that I hope and honestly believe will still appeal to large segments of politically aware Americans with regard to a national sales tax. It does, after all, promise to give people the ability to wield substantial veto power over government actions.
When people boycott a company, individual or artist in large enough numbers, it can be one of the stronger tools of social activism. Likewise, buying the product of a company or artist under fire can send a powerful message either in favor of what they are doing or in favor of their right to do it. The free market gives both actions their weight.
THE GOVERNMENT IS NOT HELD to the same standard. Right now if you oppose an action of the government — be it funding a war or providing money to the UN sterilization squads prowling Third World countries — you can march, write letters, or hope one of the two nearly identical candidates running in your district shares your view. But you cannot deprive the government of the one thing that makes everything possible: Cash. It is unrealistic to expect people who disagree with government policy to quit their jobs and risk their livelihoods in protest.
With a national sales tax on nonessential items, though, if you truly believed the government was doing the wrong thing, it is completely within reason to buy only food and other essential items for some time to remove yourself from complicity in that policy. A couple million people participating in such a boycott (unfortunately) could not send the government to a grinding halt, but they could make their objection felt.
The added benefit to all of this in a consumer society is that it would be very easy to see whether or not self-righteous activists are actually walking the walk and sacrificing for the causes they endlessly shout about. For example: “Is my opposition to the war in Iraq greater or lesser than my desire for a new Dave Matthews Band CD?”
It’s time to face the truth: Arguing over the minute details of the graduated income tax is a cottage industry for both major political parties, a political football they love tossing back and forth over our heads. We never try and catch it because we’re too busy trying to hold onto our cash. The term “democracy” is getting a lot of lip service these days, but until we make government as accountable to us as we are to it, Tax Day will continue to be your Congressional representatives’ favorite holiday.
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