Voluntary Taxation?

Warren Buffett’s recent NY Times op-ed advocating higher taxes on the wealthy (“Stop Coddling the Super-Rich,” Aug. 15) provoked a response that was vacuous even by the Right’s recent standards.  As Jack LeMenanger of Winchester, MA, wrote in his letter to the editor, for example, “If Warren E. Buffett wants to pay more in taxes, no one is stopping him.”  Andrew Roth, VP of Government Affairs for the Club for Growth, agreed: “Nothing is stopping him from sending a larger check to the Internal Revenue Service as if higher tax rates applied to him.”  But unless these authors can point to an example of a successful society that relies on voluntary tax payments, their objection makes no sense.

Private charitable donations are of course important (as Buffett himself hardly need be reminded, since he’s already given more than $30 billion of his personal fortune to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation).  But no country relies on voluntary donations to provide essential public goods and services.  Any country that tried wouldn’t be able to support an army and would be quickly overrun by a country with one.  In the end, its citizens would end up paying mandatory taxes to that country’s government.

Because public services benefit all citizens, most of us accept the need to pay taxes to support them. If taxes were voluntary, many would seize the opportunity to enjoy those services for free.  And once people saw their neighbors enjoying a free ride, many more would withhold their own voluntary payments.  Some countries, such as Haiti and Somalia, have governments to weak to enforce their tax laws.  Tax compliance is low, and public services are abominable.  People are not queuing up to move to those countries.

Yet, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ report on the current state of American infrastructure, that’s the kind of society we’re becoming.  As a share of GDP, current federal tax levels are lower than at any point since 1950.  They’re far below what’s needed to cover even existing budgets, much less to restore our crumbling roads, bridges, dams, and sewage systems.

It’s impractical to exclude those who don’t pay for public goods from enjoying their benefits.  The only way to provide them in the quantity and quality we want is through higher mandatory taxation.  Middle- and low-income families, who are under greater economic stress than at any time since the Great Depression, can’t pay much more.  As Buffett pointed out, any plan for generating the additional revenue we need must entail higher levies on the wealthy.

And the right wing’s best response is to urge him to send voluntary tax payments to the IRS?