Andrew Fiala

Couldn’t we find a better way to collect taxes?

Columnist Andrew Fiala says taxation leaves us cold. Voting warms the heart. The Fourth of July is fun. But no one celebrates tax day or pledges allegiance to the IRS. The country might benefit from a rebranded tax system.
Columnist Andrew Fiala says taxation leaves us cold. Voting warms the heart. The Fourth of July is fun. But no one celebrates tax day or pledges allegiance to the IRS. The country might benefit from a rebranded tax system. Tribune News Service file illustration

Paying taxes is a civic duty. But instead of invoking patriotic passion, taxation irritates and exasperates.

Revelations about offshore tax havens and tax evasion do not inspire confidence. A recent story indicates that 20 percent of profitable American corporations don’t pay any tax. Loopholes and exemptions benefit some. But most of us pay, without imagining ways to evade the tax collector.

Taxation leaves us cold. Voting warms the heart. The Fourth of July is fun. But no one celebrates tax day or pledges allegiance to the IRS. The country might benefit from a rebranded tax system.

April is certainly a good month to reflect on taxation. According to the Tax Foundation, Tax Freedom Day will occur this year on April 24. That’s when we will have paid off our collective tax bill. April 19 is Patriot’s Day, which commemorates the battles of Lexington and Concord, fought in 1775. Emancipation Day is celebrated in Washington, D.C., on April 16, commemorating the emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia in 1862. These holidays are among the reason our taxes are not due this year until April 18.

Why not combine all of this in a patriotic holiday that celebrates liberty and the need to pay for it? Some libertarians may object that taxation is a form of slavery. But real slavery involves whips and chains. Taxation may be a drag. But it is not slavery. Instead, it is the cost of living in our country.

Of course, no one pays more than the minimum. And if you don’t pay, you’ll get arrested. If taxation is not quite slavery, it is also not a freely given gift. But taxes pay for obvious benefits: schools, roads, insurance and protection.

Not everyone agrees about how our tax dollars are spent or how much should be collected. Our elected representatives are supposed to make sure that there is no taxation without representation. They might also consider simplifying the tax code.

Even for those who understand taxation as a civic obligation, tax documents are infuriating. Those brave and deluded souls who file their own tax returns confront a system as convoluted as anything Franz Kafka could have imagined.

Kafka’s characters often suffer at the hands of alienating bureaucracies. Kafka once said, “the chains of tormented mankind are made out of red tape.” The tormenting red tape of April flows out of the dreaded 1040 form, its inscrutable instructions, and its tiresome schedules.

The problem begins with the impersonal and unimaginative name for this document. Why is it called “1040”? For that matter, who named the W-2 and 1099 forms? The authors of these torturous documents should be given a course in basic composition. Alienating and bureaucratic jargon infect the whole. The taxpayer is victim to indecipherable prose.

Leaving rhetoric aside, you would think that the government would simply tell us what we owe. Other bill collectors send an invoice. But income tax returns are different. You tell the government what you think you owe.

The IRS already has some idea, of course. They have our W-2s, 1099s and the withholding taxes we’ve paid. It is up to you to inform them of adjustments, deductions and exemptions. The process is absurdly convoluted. When you make a mistake on your return, the government sends a correction. In the end, they know what we owe. So why can’t they send us a simple bill, and save us hours of tedious tax preparation?

One explanation looks to the interests of tax accountants. A 2013 report from the Sunlight Foundation indicates that the tax preparation industry spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying against proposals to simplify the tax system. According to one industry website, the tax preparation industry generated $9 billion in revenue in 2012, with expected growth toward $11 billion in 2018.

April is certainly a good month for accountants. It is also a good month to reflect on the cost of good government and the need for a transparent tax system. Our byzantine tax code and its loopholes provoke angst and outrage. Liberty is lost in this labyrinth.

They say that nothing is certain except death and taxes. But there are better and worse ways to die. And there should be a better way to collect taxes.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. Contact him: fiala.andrew@gmail.com.

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