Tax Analysts Blog

How Democrats Will Destroy Progressive Government

Posted on Apr 10, 2013

As Americans rush to file their tax returns, there’s no better time to reflect on how long we’ve been doing this. Monday will mark our 100th year of struggling with our tax forms and rushing them to the post office in time for a midnight deadline. (For a video exploring the last century of taxpaying, visit Tax Analysts' YouTube channel.)

Of course, that image is almost quaint, nowadays. Few of us are rushing to the post office for anything anymore, let alone tax filing; electronic returns have become the new normal. And very few of us struggle with completing those returns on our own; most people use software or get help from a professional preparer.

There’s a real loss in all this progress. As I’ve argued before, a little bit of pain can be a good thing when it comes to paying taxes. Pain in the wallet, of course, is inevitable, since most of us have to part with some cash (notwithstanding arguments about the “47 percent,” most of whom are, in fact, paying in some fashion).

But I mean the other kind of pain – the pain in the butt that comes with actually completing your tax return. Filing represents a moment of genuine engagement between tax payer and tax imposer. In an ideal world, it creates a moment of reflection, a chance to reassess and revisit the social compact that undergirds taxation of any kind.

Oliver Wendell Holmes is famous (among policy wonks, at least) for describing taxes as the “price of civilization.” But that deeply pro-tax formulation is also seriously incomplete. It tells us why we should pay taxes, but it doesn’t shed any light on how much we should be paying.

And how much is actually the crucial question. Not many of us are willing to go all the way with the “taxes are theft” argument that’s so popular among the purer sort of libertarian. Most Americans can agree that we should pay something for government. But there’s plenty of room for debate about whether the government needs a pound of flesh or could scrape by with just 7 or 8 ounces.

Indeed, our whole national argument about taxes – we pay too much! They pay too little! – is misplaced. At best, it’s a proxy for the real argument we should be having. To use Holmes’s terms , we argue endlessly about the price when we should be debating the civilization.

Of course, no one wants to have this argument. Republicans avoid it because they read the polls and know the truth: most Americans like those parts of civilization that cost the most. Parts like Medicare, for instance, or Social Security. Democrats, on the other hand, are perfectly happy to talk about these programs, and even willing to defend their cost (they will certainly defend these programs against efforts to reduce that cost).

But Democrats don’t want to talk about all the rest of the civilization our taxes might be paying for (if only we were actually imposing them in appropriate amounts, rather than borrowing to pay the bills). Democrats shrink from a vigorous defense of government in its non-entitlement forms.

Sure, Democrats pay lip-service to infrastructure, education, and the like. But for the most part, they are profoundly unwilling to make a wholistic case for activist, progressive government. They won’t – or can’t – defend the value proposition implicit in Holmes’s formulation: we should pay the price for big government because government is worth it.

This failure to make the case for progressive government – and the taxes we need to pay for it – is deeply embedded in modern Democratic politics. President Obama’s well-established opposition to tax hikes for anyone but the rich is the clearest, and most damning, illustration of this failure. Every so often, Obama will be moved to impressive rhetorical height in defense of progressive government. A government that actually does something, that looks out for people, that tries to build the foundation for a prosperous future, that makes prudent investments in education, infrastructure, and research. It’s a powerful and compelling vision.

But after explaining why this sort of government is so important, Obama rips the heart out of his own argument, at least implicitly. Apparently, this new sort of progressive government is really important. But not so important that most of us should actually pay anything extra for it.

If something is worth having, it’s worth paying for. And if it’s not worth paying for, then it’s not worth much.

Right now, we’re not even paying for the government we have, much less the government we need. But until Democrats are willing to acknowledge that fact – that civilization can’t be purchased on the cheap, at least not indefinitely – then the progressive vision for America is destined to fail.

Read Comments (2)

amt buffApr 11, 2013

The more fundamental problem is that politicians have enacted Ponzi-like
programs, with excessive initial benefits balanced by excessive costs much
later.

It is now "much later". Greek politicians can't sell the pain of paying for
past profligacy to their voters. American politicians can't either.

The progressive vision is a fantasy, not because large government is
theoretically impossible, but because government is an unreliable guarantor.
Government will be forced to break its promises in a crisis. Therefore the
promises need to be kept to an affordable minimum.

This is the reality-based argument against expansive transfer payments. It's
immoral to induce people to plan their lives around an unreliable promise. A
promise too big to keep is a promise too big to make.

The credibility of government's promises is in a bear market. The public will
not be buying more of them any time soon.

Von GneisenauApr 13, 2013

"If something is worth having, it’s worth paying for. And if it’s not worth
paying for, then it’s not worth much."

That statement is based on so many false assumptions that it is bound to end up
in a logic section of some standardized test (if liberals do not eliminate them
first).

I will leave the other obvious problems with this statement (e.g., value
propositions differ among different beholders OR there are lots of things I
would like to have (worth having) that I am not willing (or able) to pay for,
most of those things have value) and focus on what the author's trying to imply
about the value of government.

Put simply, it makes zero sense to suggest/imply that something has no value if
it's not worth paying for the GOVERNMENT to provide it.

Clearly, almost any car has value - but I don't want the government to tax me
so that it can make Yugos. I would much rather pay for an SLS instead (believe
it or not it'd be cheaper!).

We can agree that having some government is a benefit - military, cops and
courts, perhaps the highway system - perhaps... Highways add value so they are
worth having but the question is bang for buck - if you go to Orange County,
you will find that the nicest highways aren't "free"ways, are in fact private
and that most people there are perfectly happy with that. I am willing to bet
that I pay less for them than for the government to maintain its system - and,
importantly, it is a targeted expense - the more I use, the more I pay, the
less I use...

What's ironic, of course, is that some of the stuff the government does best,
government does itself. The worst piece of government is where it intersects
with the private sector and hires privates to work on its behalf - then the
milking begins.

I would rather pay the contractors directly rather than pay them twice as much
through the government where there is about zero transparency.

So lots of things have value (and they may have more or less value than the
money in my sock) but the government is not the best dealer of all such things.

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