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April Is the Cruelest Month

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Taxes. Fiscal force. This is the month that you are ordered to reduce your financial life to a series of complex tax forms and get them into the IRS. This is the month that your report to the government is due. The authorities are waiting to hear from you. Don’t be late. Don’t make a mistake.

Not a pleasant subject. And why should it be? Taxation is legalized robbery, compulsory tribute, exaction. The government wants a healthy portion of what you earned last year. You pay under penalty of confiscation, imprisonment, even death. (No exaggeration there. Try refusing the taxman and then defending your property when the armed agents show up at your door.)

This description applies to any tax. But the most egregious tax is the income tax. Any tax in principle can be draconian, but an income tax is most oppressive. For one thing, people will always be tempted to hide income. The government doesn’t like that and will go to great lengths to prevent it. Also, the complexity of the code gives government great scope for intrusion. Each touted legislative effort to simplify the tax somehow makes it more complicated. Both the IRS and a survey of taxpayers say it takes more time to fill out the forms this year than last year. Everyone is a code violator even if through innocent error. The taxman knows it and we know it. The system is based on terror, which is unbecoming a theoretically free people. To rub salt in the wound, the government compels employers to withhold the tax before we even get our hands on it.

There is something especially repugnant about the government’s demanding that we report how much money we make and where it comes from. It is the income tax that has made financial privacy an object of nostalgia. The Founding Fathers would have been appalled.

Today the federal government takes a record amount of the people’s income, more than 20 percent. The budget makers brag about the coming surpluses. But do they talk about cutting or repealing taxes? Republicans use tax-cutting language ritualistically, but it doesn’t get much beyond that. Democrats have a pathological fear that a tax cut would benefit the “rich” more than the “poor.” They also have too many other things to do with your money than to let you have it. They have to save Social Security, pay down the national debt, increase spending on education, build up the military, and a dozen other things.

Add a new item to the list: protecting Kosovo. That along with the rest of President Clinton’s “peacekeeping” agenda will not be cheap.

Government is a transfer machine. Politicians take what A produces and give it to B. The B’s are well-organized interest groups, the A’s the unorganized majority. The system is designed to keep incumbents living in the manner to which they have become accustomed. By distributing booty they buy votes. That’s why they need so much money, and that’s why they need an intimidating IRS: to keep the money rolling in.

The federal government raises more than a trillion dollars a year through income and payroll taxes. No tax designed to raise that much money can be unintrusive, regardless of how many Taxpayer Bills of Rights Congress passes. Tinkering with the IRS and tax code is therefore futile. The only lasting remedy is dismantling the transfer machine we benignly call the welfare state. The pillars of the welfare state, the income tax and the Sixteenth Amendment that authorizes it, must go also.

In all the public discussion of the income tax, the key fact gets lost: it’s your money. You work for it. You earn it. It’s your property. Only you have a right to it. The plans that the politicians make to spend your money are outrages against liberty. We’ve come a long way since small tea and stamp taxes bred revolutionary thoughts in our forefathers.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.