The "Fair" Tax Problem

April 15th has come and gone, but the arguments and bitterness remain, even well after the last “tea parties” have disappeared… for this year. We’ve all heard the arguments. The “rich” pay too little in taxes; the rich pay far more than their fair share; the middle class carries the heaviest tax burden; taxes are too heavy for working families… The arguments, points, and counterpoints seem almost endless, and more than a few Americans have asked year after year why Congress can’t come up with a taxation system that is simple and fair.

There are essentially three reasons why that seemingly simple task is in fact impossible. First, the U.S. government spends an incredible amount of money. That requires hefty taxation, and raising large amounts of revenue mitigates against fairness. While everyone thinks spending should be lower, there’s no majority agreement on what particular programs should be cut. Oh… there’s a general agreement that waste should be cut and that perhaps defense spending should be lower, but, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. One person’s definition of waste, as I’ve discussed earlier, is another’s vital program. And, as for defense cuts… There should be fewer military bases, but don’t eliminate the ones in my state. Fewer troops in uniform? But we don’t want longer tours for those in service, and we don’t want the return of a draft. Less fancy weapons? But that increases casualties.

Similar issues arise in other programs. What about Social Security and healthcare? As it is, millions of Americans have trouble making ends meet in their older years… and you want to cut their benefits? Multiply these kinds of questions by the thousands of programs, and there’s precious little consensus on the details of any major spending reform.

Second, because so many Americans’ income, expense, employment, and life situation differ, a simple system capable of raising adequate revenue will inevitably have very different impacts on different taxpayers, and those differences will be perceived as unfair.

But the biggest reason why a “fair” tax system is impossible is because, as a nation, we cannot agree on what constitutes fairness. It sounds simple, and it’s anything but.

Begin with the reason for taxes. They’re officially levied to pay for services that individuals cannot provide for themselves, matters such as national defense, court systems, interstate and local highways, food safety and environmental standards — the list is long, and while many people complain that it is far too long, every one of those functions or rules was legislated into being because the so-called private sector proved unable or unwilling to deal with such issues. In general, at least in theory, each American has an equal claim to those services. Sam doesn’t get more national defense or environmental protection than Georgette, or less use of the highways or the courts.

So… one “fairness” argument asks why citizens who earn more than others and create jobs, either through the businesses they build or through their spending on goods and services, should pay higher taxes, either in absolute or percentage terms, than other taxpayers, when both receive the same government services. In fact, in percentage terms, many of those with the lowest incomes receive such services without contributing at all, except to Social Security and Medicare, and sometimes, not even to those programs.

A second fairness argument is based on equating fairness to percentage taxation, i.e., the fairest income tax is one that taxes all incomes at the same percentage. Under such a tax, often proposed at around 20%, a family that earned $45,000 [approximately the U.S. average family income] would pay $9,000, while a family that earned $135,000 would pay $27,000. The problem with this, many claim, is that $9,000 represents a far greater burden on the average family than does $27,000 on the better-off family, and this makes a flat tax unfair. On the other hand, does the better-off family receive three times as many benefits as the poorer family? Is that fair?

A third level of fairness argument is advanced by those advocating a “progressive” income tax systems [which, in various varieties, are what most nations actually have in one form or another, again, at least in theory]. This version of fairness states that those who have and earn more should pay a higher rate, often a far higher rate, than those who have less. There are a number of rationales for this, but the one most advocated is that those who are blessed with being successful have a greater obligation to pay back society with by paying higher taxes. Put slightly more cynically, that tends to equate to “it’s your civic obligation, and we need the money, and there aren’t enough of you to stop us from doing it.” I, at least, find it hard to argue that the wealthiest citizens, at least those who do pay taxes, and almost all of them do these days, thanks to the Alternative Minimum Tax, receive substantially more in government benefits than do other citizens, other than perhaps the benefit of the government not enacting even higher taxes. Do they have a moral obligation to pay higher taxes? On what grounds? Is it fair to insist that they do? Opponents of progressive taxation raise the question of why it’s considered fair for the most productive citizens to subsidize the needs of the least productive. Or why people with more children pay less in taxes than those with fewer children, when those with more children require more services?

These certainly aren’t all the arguments about “fairness” in taxation, and there well may be better ones than I’ve mentioned, but, whatever anyone’s position on these questions of “fairness” may be, it is quite clear that among Americans, and probably all populations everywhere, individuals have very different definitions of what constitutes fairness. And that, I submit, is one of the basic reasons why there will never be a tax system considered fair by those across all income levels of a society.

And, then, is it fair for a majority, because those who make less are always the majority in any society, to decide what is fair? Yet… would it be any fairer for one minority or another to decide?