Turning in your taxes before April 15 is an aggravating experience. Even if all you have to do is retype the numbers on different parts of your W-2 into blanks on another form, it’s a tedious process made more stressful by the knowledge that you’ll be breaking the law if you don’t get it done on time.
Here’s the thing, though: it doesn’t have to be like this. Really.
In several Nordic countries, the government prepares your taxes for you. All you have to do is officially agree that they’ve filled out the forms correctly. In Sweden, for example, many taxpayers who don’t want to claim complicated deductions simply get a text message with their tax information filled out for them. All they must do is respond “yes.” That’s it. That’s literally what “doing taxes” is for those Swedes.
In Estonia, estimates of the average time it takes to review tax information sent by the government range from one minute to five minutes. The business editor of an Estonian newspaper claimed that even a taxpayer with two or three income streams doesn’t need more than five minutes.
The Swedes and Estonians aren’t hoarding some incredible technology unavailable in the United States. This is a political choice.
Taxes Aren’t Theft, but America Makes Them Feel That Way
Right-wing free marketeers like to portray taxation as an assault on individual freedom. The libertarian philosopher Michael Huemer, for example, argues that there’s no morally relevant difference between the government demanding you turn over some portion of your income as taxes and a mugger demanding your wallet at gunpoint. If the mugger’s actions are unacceptable, Huemer asks, why is the analogous action acceptable when performed by a group of individuals calling themselves a government?
There’s a large flaw at the heart of his argument. As I’ve argued before, taking a page from Matt Bruenig, all distributions of scarce resources need to be backed up by at least the implicit threat of force. A “No Trespassing” sign is as much a threat of force as a bill from the IRS. The real issue is whether any given distribution of resources, and hence the force used to back it up, is just.
Huemer disagrees. To be clear, he’s not an absolutist about competing values. He thinks a starving person, for example, might be justified in mugging you to keep themselves alive. But he thinks the theft analogy is useful in reminding us that the government is guilty until proven innocent — it needs an especially good justification to use force.
The best response I’ve seen to this comes from the left-wing philosopher Jesse Spafford, who points out that Huemer’s argument could be applied equally to the use of force by property owners. Spafford illustrates the point with a hypothetical example about a cruise ship that docks at an undiscovered island.
The passengers are excited to spend the day exploring the island, but, before they have a chance to disembark, one passenger runs to the end of the gangplank and declares, “Sorry, but I have decided that this island is for my personal use only! I forbid any of you from setting foot on it — unless, of course, you pay me $50 and take off your shoes before getting off the boat.”
When the first passenger in line ignores this edict and walks onto the island, the declaration-issuer’s friends rush over and seize the “trespasser” and begin binding her wrists and ankles. She struggles a bit, but after they spray sunscreen in her eyes, she stops resisting and is carried back onto the ship and locked in one of the cabins until she agrees to stay off the island.
As Spafford points out, all the points Huemer makes about the mugger and the tax collector could apply to an ordinary property owner and the declaration giver in the island example. If we wouldn’t accept the declaration giver’s behavior, why should we accept the behavior of an ordinary property owner asserting the same rights to forcibly defend the property they’ve claimed? Huemer can’t exactly reply that the morally relevant difference is that, in ordinary cases, the property claim has been ratified by a government.
As such, however high the bar should be set for accepting government-mandated distribution, given Huemer’s argument, the bar should be set just as high for accepting ordinary claims to private property.
As a matter of philosophical argumentation, there’s no good answer to Bruenig and Spafford’s case. But the psychological reality for a great many people is that it just doesn’t feel that way. The day-to-day operations of a capitalist economy, in which wealthy business owners rake in profits and spend a fortune on private security to make sure no one else accesses “their” wealth and property, feel like the natural order of things. Taxes feel like an imposition.
They may feel that way even to many Swedes and Estonians, but I’d bet more money than what I owed on this year’s tax return that they feel a lot less like that to the average taxpayer in places where reviewing and agreeing to government reports of what taxes you owe is a one-minute process — or even a matter of glancing at a text message and responding “yes.” And it’s not a coincidence that so many of the countries that have embraced this innovation are advanced social democracies where, although capitalism is far from having been completely overcome, an organized working class has been able to negotiate a significantly more favorable social contract than the one we have in the United States.
Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
When he ran for president in 2008, Barack Obama promised to offer the option of a prefilled tax return. The idea sounded like common sense — why force millions of people with simple returns to regurgitate information the government had already collected? As with so many of Obama’s other promises, though, nothing happened.
Putting aside the depressing story of the Obama presidency, there are a few larger reasons why government-prepared taxes have never come to the United States. The most obvious is simple corruption — firms like H&R Block and Intuit (the company behind TurboTax) have lobbied against efforts to replicate the Swedish model in the United States. They like the status quo for obvious reasons.
A less obvious reason was noted by Derek Thompson in an article for the Atlantic in 2016:
Grover Norquist and other conservatives who want to cut taxes don’t want tax collection to be more efficient. They’re afraid it will be easier for the feds to raise revenue if taxes feel effortless and people spend less time considering them.
Got that? They want it to feel like a stressful disruption to your ordinary life. They want you to feel like you’re being robbed so you’ll be more sympathetic to rich people who want their taxes cut so they don’t have to pay for services that benefit the rest of us.
Remember that every time conservatives use America’s complex, stressful tax process as a reason to support their agenda of budget-cutting social cruelty: they want paying taxes to be like this.