You Are What You Tax

Take a break as you fill out your 1040 form, and play this game: suppose you could choose which government entities your tax dollars support--and in what proportion. Since it's a thought experiment, let's assume that local and state government functions are part of the list. What percentages will you assign to which departments, agencies and programs?

Some people will split their taxes between the local police and national defense and leave it at that. Some will assign it all to the Environmental Protection Agency. Taxpayers from red states will choose differently from taxpayers from blue states. But polling data tells us enough about the government services people value to permit reasonably confident predictions about the national results.

Police, fire, water and sewage, courts and prisons and national defense will get far more money than they would ever have the nerve to request. The allocations for national parks, environmental protection, air-traffic control and highways will probably be many times their current budgets. But my first point (match my prediction against your own choices) is that almost all the choices will be for tangible services. Most of them will be for services that fall under the classic understanding of a "public good"--something that individuals cannot easily provide on their own and that is shared by all (police protection, clean air).

My second point is that allowing taxpayers to name where their tax dollars go would put large segments of local, state and federal government out of business. To see what I mean, go to the Web and bring up the organizational chart of any government department. Some of the boxes will catch your eye as something you might like to support (mine safety, the national archives) but there will be plenty of other boxes about working groups, directorates for planning or administration or diversity, offices of compliance exemption or regulatory development, all of which sound like a ton of bureaucracy for an ounce of output. Might you use your tax dollars to support a mine inspector or an archive curator? Quite possibly. Will you line up to support any of the boxes that sound like gobbledygook? Unlikely. Much of the apparatus of government does nothing that ordinary people, making sensible judgments, would willingly pay government to do.

Now what if taxpayers skip over the boxes that appear to be useless because they do not understand their necessity? Let's expand the thought experiment. Say that those ignored boxes can advertise--but that the advertisements must meet the same standards of truthfulness as the advertisements for, say, antacids.

What a delicious prospect: a government office having to explain itself in order to persuade taxpayers to support its existence. The elements within the government that can make a persuasive case will do fine. Americans are not stingy or shortsighted. We will still have plenty of mine inspectors and curators. But who will voluntarily pay for the layers of bureaucratic barnacles that make up so much of the organization charts? Who will pay for the billions in subsidies that are doled out to agricultural, corporate and nonprofit special interests? Who will pay for the enormous pork-barrel projects?

The cliche that 9/11 taught Americans to appreciate the importance of government contains a nugget of truth. It made us remember how crucial the core public services really are. Perhaps this recognition will inform our future choices--prompting us to support the government we need, and helping us finally put an end to the government that serves no purpose but its own.

Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at AEI.

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The Constitution as political theory

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