Your Money, Your Choice
Rethinking Taxes: Proud to Pay
Progressives have a problem: Voters detest taxes, and Republicans want to give them more tax cuts. Because Democrats believe in using government to promote the public interest, they will never “out-tax-cut” the right. So how can progressives win over the public when they’re always on the wrong side of the question of who’ll cut taxes more?
Here’s one idea: Promote the concept of tax choice. What exactly is tax choice? Simply put, it is a policy that would permit taxpayers to allocate a percentage of their income taxes to any portion of the discretionary federal budget. In a tax choice program, a taxpayer who wishes to support public education, for example, could send some of her income tax dollars specifically to that part of the federal budget, while a taxpayer who feels strongly about the military could allocate a portion of his income tax payment accordingly. (Ethan Porter proposed a variation of this idea—allowing taxpayers to direct additional tax money to programs of their choice when filing their tax returns—in “Can’t Wait ’Til Tax Day!” in the Spring 2010 issue of Democracy.)
According to experimental research I’ve conducted looking into the efficacy of tax choice, permitting taxpayers to allocate even a small percentage of their income tax to the programs of their choice generates significant increases in taxpayer satisfaction. Further, taxpayers’ allocations reveal a strong preference for more butter and fewer guns. Thus, allowing taxpayers some choice in where their taxes go may slowly shift the nation’s spending priorities toward more socially productive investments.
Beyond these effects, tax choice enables individuals to compete more effectively with moneyed interests in policy-making. The politics of tax choice are appealing as well, drawing on both libertarian and conservative themes of individual empowerment and agency, as well as the progressive belief in good government. Tax choice would resonate across a broad political spectrum, and directly engage citizens in the administration of the republic.
To understand how tax choice can advance progressive goals, it’s important to understand why people hate paying taxes so much in the first place. Psychology offers a number of explanations. First, tax payments involve distant goods and services that are experienced at a remove from the payment. Further, the benefits of tax dollars are highly diffuse and abstract. Many benefits are never directly seen by the individual taxpayer. So with taxes, one of the things that usually motivates people to open their wallets is notably absent: At the time of payment, we don’t see what we’re getting in return.
Still, if this were the only problem with paying taxes, we’d have an easy fix. Just show people what their tax dollars pay for and, assuming that any of those things are valuable, they should be happy to pay. In fact, the taxpayer receipt proposed in this symposium would likely create some improvements in taxpayer satisfaction.
However, there’s another major reason why people loathe taxes that would not be addressed by tax receipts: Taxes are compulsory, and Americans hate being told what to do. The discomfort we feel when our freedom is constrained is called psychological reactance, and it plays a big part in our hatred of taxes. Since tax payments involve zero agency or freedom, people are likely to dislike them even if they pay for goods acknowledged to be valuable. Even worse, reactance can generate negative emotions toward its source. In the context of taxes, reactance creates antipathy toward government, even among individuals who otherwise benefit from it.
How Choice Can Detoxify Taxes
Will tax choice work? To answer the question, I conducted a lab experiment and follow-up survey (supported by the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business) looking into taxpayers’ views on paying taxes. A total of 902 taxpayers—aged 20-91 and spread across a nationally representative range of ethnicities, income levels, marginal tax brackets, and political affiliations—participated in the study.
In the experiment, all respondents completed an online survey that asked them to identify their primary sources of media exposure, filing status, and income bracket, and another survey inquiring about their satisfaction with paying their taxes, captured on a seven-point scale ranging from “not at all satisfied” to “very satisfied.” The respondents were divided into four groups, each of which was given a different treatment.
A quarter of our respondents were simply told to fill out the two surveys and given no additional information or an option to allocate their tax dollars. We called this the “uninformed no-choice” group.
Another quarter of the experimental respondents did the same thing, but were also given a pie chart showing the breakdown of income tax dollars across the discretionary portions of the federal budget: military spending; agriculture, commerce, and transportation; international affairs; energy, environment, and science; housing and community development; education, training, and social services; and anti-poverty programs. We called this the “informed no-choice” group. (Note that a pie chart showing the distribution of federal spending is different from a taxpayer receipt: the latter is less abstract, showing how much of an individual taxpayer’s total tax payment, in the stark language of dollars and cents, went to different federal programs.)
Another group of respondents was not given this baseline information, but did have a chance to allocate 10 percent of their income tax dollars across those same budget categories. We called this the “uninformed choice” condition.
Finally, a quarter of the participants were shown the current allocation of federal dollars and given the opportunity to allocate 10 percent of their income tax payment across the same categories—the “informed choice” condition. The results were fascinating. Both uninformed and informed choosers were significantly more satisfied with paying taxes than either group of no-choice taxpayers. According to our analysis, choosers’ increased satisfaction was associated with a sense that they had allocated in a way that benefited others. This sense of social benefit, in turn, predicted higher satisfaction with payment.
Post a Comment