April 7th, 2008 by Rightsideup

A video surfaced this week of an interview with Harry Reid, by a man named Jan Helfeld, which tackles the subject of taxation. In it, Reid repeats an idea floated a few months ago by Charlie Rangel, which is that we have a “voluntary tax system.” Now, it appears that this is a standard term used in tax policy circles, and it describes the fact that US citizens are responsible for paying their own taxes to the government, and that the government does not forcibly extract such taxes from each paycheck as in other countries. In addition, it is supposedly tied to the concept of deductions which may be made from tax payments for various items, which again are not present in other countries (although my experience of the British tax system suggests that the two needn’t go together – the UK uses a pay as you earn (PAYE) tax system in which the taxes are subtracted from paychecks but there are still various deductions, albeit not as generous as in the US).

However, both Reid’s and Rangels’ insistence on using this phrase in the context they do makes clear that it has nothing to do with arcane policy discussions and everything to do with trying to make it sound like we live in a utopian society where paying taxes really is “voluntary”, which most would take to mean optional. This it clearly isn’t in the US or in another other real-world country. And it is a fallacy which must be tempting to believe in when you believe the government has the right to demand extortionate rates of taxation from its citizens in order to pay for a multitude of government programs not authorized by the constitution. As long as it’s all voluntary, then it doesn’t really matter, does it?

But of course the interviewer in the Reid clip rightly presses him on that point and suggests that it is not voluntary in any sense a normal person would recognize. Instead of simply agreeing that it is an inappropriate use of the word in the context and moving on, Reid digs in and insists that the tax code is voluntary and that this is somehow important. This just reinforces the perception that Reid is willfully misrepresenting the situation out of political necessity, but he just comes off as being ridiculous at worst and irretrievably wonkish at worst.