Curiouser and Curiouser

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by Lindy Davies

Readers may have noticed the recent flap over the Internal Revenue Service subjecting conservative groups to extraordinary levels of scrutiny. Mostly these are folks who call themselves Patriots, who are Taxed Enough Already! (Heavens, why would that ring any alarms at the IRS?)

yowThis conversation is taking place in Today’s Political Media — which makes it inherently weird to begin with — but, there is a deeper, more fundamental level of unreality about it, and that’s what I’d like to discuss for a moment.

If we talk about walking out the door, it makes a difference whether we’re at sea level… or underwater… or flying at 35,000 feet. The current IRS discussion is assuming a comfortable altitude of business as usual, in which a complex tax code is part of the price of a civilized society.

The current length of the US Tax Code, as of February of this year, is 72,536 pages, according to the CCH Standard Tax Reporter. (The Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1989, was 21,730 pages in twenty volumes.)

In terms of political spin, it strikes me that President Obama had to vehemently condemn the IRS scandal. It would look very bad if his administration appeared to be engaging in the same sort of crap-slinging that his opponents have been doing for the last six years. But that’s not important to me; I don’t doubt that crap was slung on both sides; sausage was made; whatever. I’m interested in our public revenue system’s actual altitude — don’t go out that door, we haven’t landed yet!

Nothing about the IRS makes sense. For example, we are constitutionally protected against self-incrimination — that is, unless we are being prosecuted for tax evasion. And, we were told by Adam Smith, and by every sensible economist since, that our public revenue system should follow four basic rules:

  1. It should bear as lightly as possible on production
  2. It should be easily and inexpensively collected, and fall on the ultimate payer
  3. It should be clear, and its yield should be predictable
  4. It should bear equally, conferring no unearned advantage

But as we all know, these rules are flung down and danced upon by our Internal Revenue System.

So — It appears that some groups have been unfairly selected for an even bigger helping of IRS abuse than the normal, background level of pernicious annoyance and theft visited upon every normal taxpayer. No, that’s not a good thing — but please, let’s calm down, land the plane and exit slowly, at ground level.

People, the US Tax Code is more than three times the length of the Oxford English Dictionary! That’s over 145 reams of paper! It makes no sense. Nobody understands it. It wrecks the economy, invades people’s privacy, wastes their time and saps their spirits. And there is a viable alternative. The shape of a sensible public revenue system is not a mystery. It is well-understood. There is plenty of thoughtful, well-documented information on how it would work — and indeed on how it has worked. We need to collect the value of land and natural resources for public revenue. We need to start right now.

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