Stephen Gottlieb: Tax Day – Why the Pain?

Apr 16, 2013

Yesterday was the last day to file our tax returns for 2012. If you enjoyed it you are probably either an accountant who earned lots of money filing other people’s returns, or you have enough money to have an accountant file your returns, or you were getting a BIG refund. For the rest of us it was anything from a mild annoyance to a big pain.

But I’d like to reflect on why that is. Frankly I do not object to paying my share of taxes. That’s not because my taxes are trivial – I get a decent salary and I pay a significant proportion just like the rest of us. But, as the great Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., said, “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” And I have no problem in doing my share.

The income tax was originally adopted because it is more fair that almost all other forms of taxes – it’s assessed on our ability to pay. We even passed a constitutional amendment to overturn a Supreme Court decision against the income tax. This year is the centennial of the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment. Think about that – Americans all over the country wanted an income tax.

When politicians come up with different forms of taxes, sales taxes, flat taxes, whatever, they are all easier on those who can afford to pay higher taxes, and harder on those who can’t. They are described as simplified or easier and some even claim they are fairer, but the real point is to shift the burden of taxes off the people with the most and toward the people with the least.

The real problem the rest of us face, with taxes as they are, is the nuisance. April 15 is like a punch in the eye. It’s tax day and we have to do all sorts of stuff–read complicated instructions, fill out forms, and finally, make a payment. The real problem with the income tax isn’t the tax, it’s the process of making us all either turn ourselves into accountants or hire one to do the job. Online tax and computer programs are a compromise–we still have a lot of work to do, but the programs organize our inputs and do the math. And we hope they get it right.

Yet all of this isn’t necessary. There are countries with an income tax that do not have anything comparable to April 15. There’s no orgy of pulling our records together and filing a return. Income taxes are paid as seamlessly as sales taxes, without all the storm and drama, without all the fuss, and without all the political handwringing.

So ask your congressperson to look into how the British do it, for example, and see if America can’t become a place where it is relatively painless to pay our taxes, where we can proudly pay our share without the obligatory complaints about the massive burden of the process of paying. Let April 15 become a holiday to celebrate our community spirit, doing our part, for the good of the nation, for the benefits of civilization.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. 

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