Friday, April 04, 2008


In interview Democratic Senator, Harry Reid, tries to argue that taxation in the US is not "forceably taking money from some people to give it to others," because the tax system in the US is "not forceable" but is "voluntary."

Check it out.

Now, one commentator there, Kevin T. Keith, responds that Reid is actually correct, saying

Reid is making a perfectly standard - and correct - point about our mechanism for collecting taxes. The US system is "voluntary" in the sense that it is up to the individual to declare their own tax liability and make sure it has been paid by paying any extra taxes owed if their paycheck withholding is not sufficient. As he points out, perfectly correctly, in many other countries the individual has no role in the payment of their own taxes - the government deducts the money without asking them what they owe or what exemptions they may be entitled to. Even with paycheck withholding, in the US the individual must make the effort to reconcile their own taxes at the end of the year.

The standard term used in tax policy discussions for such a system is "voluntary". That's the term Reid used. Of course the system is not optional - and Reid says so explicitly. But it is different from other systems, and there is a standard term used to express that difference, and that was the term he used. (And that term is surely no more euphemistic that Mr. Flourescent Necktie's harping on the word "forced", which US taxation is not.)

You don't have to like the terminology that knowledgeable people use, but you make yourself look like a fool by proving that you don't know what it means.

OK, lets concede this argument. I am not a US tax lawyer, so I won't dispute the terms. However, Kevin Keith is still wrong to say, as he later did,

Complaining that he was wrong because it is not "voluntary" in the colloquial sense, when he was using the term correctly, in this context, in the strict sense, is just buffoonery. You don't have to like the tax system, but it's idiotic to criticize knowledgeable people who discuss it knowledgeably, using the terminology used by experts in the field. There is no "evidence to the contrary" regarding the voluntary nature of US tax policy - the US system is voluntary, as that term is used by people who are trying to discuss tax policy alternatives rationally and not playing silly word games.

He is wrong to say this because Reid is clearly attempting to conflate the two senses of voluntary. He is plainly trying to say that taxation is voluntary in the "colloquial" sense because it is voluntary in the technical sense of people declaring their own income taxes rather than having the taxman deduct it at source.

The fact is that there are threats involves in the tax system. Perhaps not everybody pays in response to a threat. I could give a robber money because I like his face, regardless of the fact that if I don't he would shoot me. However, it is still the case that the government will do nasty things to you, things you presumably prefer less than keeping your money, and things that would be illegal for others to do, if you do not give it your money, and that it intends that its doing these things, or promising to do them, will create an incentive for your to accede to its demands to turn your money over.

Now, perhaps people do "voluntary" accede to threats - they choose to do what the threatener wants because they prefer that alternative to others. But that is plainly not really what people mean when they say that something is "voluntary." In fact, under that terminology, there could be no such thing as forced labour: Saying that people are free to choose not to pay taxes, but will face civil or criminal consequences if they don't, is much like saying that slaves were free not to work, but would face consequences such as floggings if they did.

Taxation is not voluntary.


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