WASHINGTON — As Tax Day — April 18 this year — approaches, we are confronted once again with the apparently enduring reality that Americans hate to pay taxes. Few political generalizations seem so indestructible. Gallup has long asked Americans whether their federal income taxes are too high. About 50 percent to 60 percent regularly say “yes.” The federal income tax is deeply unpopular. So goes the conventional wisdom.
Except that it’s not true or, at any rate, is too simple and incomplete. The tax system is not just a divider; it’s a uniter, too.
“Americans almost universally agree that taxpaying is a civic duty,” writes political scientist Vanessa Williamson in her new book, “Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes.” To be a taxpayer is “a source of pride because it is evidence that one is an upstanding, contributing member of the community.”
Williamson studied existing surveys, conducted one of her own, and interviewed 49 taxpayers in depth. What she concluded suggests a sizable revision of popular thinking, which emphasizes a profound dislike of taxes.
“Around four in five Americans … see taxpaying as a moral responsibility and tax evasion as morally wrong,” she writes of the various surveys. “This is a belief that is particularly strong in the United States” compared with many European countries, she finds. Americans have one of the world’s highest rates of tax compliance — an achievement aided by tax withholding.
Taxes are a bond as well as a burden. They’re a modern embrace of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s famous dictum: “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” Interestingly, Republicans more than Democrats feel that tax evasion is morally wrong. “Republicans believe strongly in paying taxes,” writes Williamson.
One reason popular opinion misses the unifying aspects of taxes is that public surveys are skewed, she argues. “Public opinion polls commonly assume that the only attitude Americans hold about taxes is one of enraged opposition,” Williamson writes. “Negative questions carry a value judgment and predispose certain answers.”
Still, it’s possible to take tax revisionism too far, as Williamson herself notes. Taxes — and the government programs they support — remain highly contentious issues at both the state and national levels. Somebody’s got to pay; conflict is unavoidable.
In her interviews, Williamson found widespread resentment that both the very rich and the very poor (particularly immigrants) don’t pay their “fair share” of taxes. The animus against the poor affects both Republicans and Democrats, though Republicans more so.
(It’s also a bum rap, Williamson argues. Thanks to the payroll and sales taxes, almost everyone is a taxpayer in some form. She estimates that the poorest fifth of earners make 3 percent of the income and account for 2 percent of all taxes. It’s also true that high taxable thresholds mean that 44 percent of tax filers in 2016 didn’t owe federal income taxes, reports the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.)
Even if all Americans were satisfied with their present tax situation — clearly not the case — it does not follow that everyone would be happy if their taxes were raised. President Trump has promised “tax reform” but has yet to present a concrete proposal. When he does, it is almost certain to trigger a congressional donnybrook, because some taxpayers will be hit with increases to finance tax cuts for other taxpayers.
Bigger problems loom in the future. Sooner or later, we will have to raise taxes, because there is a huge and growing gap between the government’s spending commitments and its tax revenues. Although we are now near “full employment,” meaning the economy is near its physical capacity, the deficit is roughly $500 billion. Under present policies and assuming unrealistically no future recession, it will continue to rise.
How long this can continue is anyone’s guess, though the answer is probably not “forever.” By all means, let’s acknowledge the benefits of taxes. But let’s not assume that higher taxes will make government more popular. That seems dubious.
Robert Samuelson is a columnist with The Washington Post.