In my opening, I thought I’d skip most of the details on tax levels I mentioned in yesterday’s This Week post. I’ll just summarize it briefly, and then try to frame our discussion by listing some of the most frequently cited reasons for why Americans seem to hate taxes so much. Different explanations — often really simple ones — tend to be cited by the right and left. We can do better.
The Usual Suspects — All probably explain some of it
- Americans just hate government: We were born as an anti-government nation, we’re naturally libertarian and individualist, etc. Don’t tread on me. Conservatives like this one.
- Government Has Gotten So Large: Many people, and not just conservatives, feel government has grown a lot in the last 30 years and they resent having to pay for its continued expansion. This is largely untrue (please read) in terms of just spending and tax levels. But, it’s much more true in terms of government’s regulatory reach.
- Ignorance: As I’ve mentioned a million times, most Americans don’t seem to know what their tax money actually is spent on. They believe it all goes to welfare and foreign aid (actually together about 5%-10% of federal spending, depending on what’s included). As yesterday’s pie charts show, most government spending is for health care, Social Security, national defense, interest on past debt, and education (state level).Consequently, Americans seem to think they can have low taxes and lots of government at the same time!
- Misinformation: The big liberal explanation, that 20 years of talk radio, Fox News, etc., telling us that our taxes are too high and that any more would destroy the economy, has had a major cumulative impact. I find this one too simple.
Ones We Hear Less Often —
- Who Votes And Who Gets Listened To: Voters are wealthier and older than the country as a whole, which may skew the political debate against new taxes and new government spending. Relatedly, a politics dominated by monied interests would be expected to care a lot about more about who pays taxes than any other aspect of government.
- Tax Unfairness: Most people think the tax code is unfair. Liberals tend to think the wealthy and big corporations pay too little; conservatives often cite the low taxes paid by lower-income people. But, either way, Americans seem to resent being asked to pay more when the burden already is shared “unfairly.”
- Chicken and Egg: The Europeans have had a large social welfare state for 50 years, and generally don’t mind the higher taxes because they get more services along with it. Some say that Americans just can’t see how a higher tax/higher service society would help them.
- “Us” Versus “Them:” In our uniquely large and diverse country, many people — consciously or not — resent having their taxes pay for someone else’s benefits. Whether the “others” are of a different race, ethnic group, or just far away, this attitude towards the government helping out-groups is common the world over. So, no, I’m not saying that opposition to new taxes is by definition racist or mean-spirited. But, human beings’ ability to extend their empathy to people they don’t know or idfentify with is limited, especially when money is involved. Tell, me I’m wrong.
Can anyone think of other explanations? I’ll only talk for about 15 minutes. If people want to get into the details of tax levels or who pays what taxes, I may have to plead ignorance or promise the info in a future post.