My friend Matt Zwolinski, a professor of philosophy at University of San Diego, wonders why folks who think taxes ought to be higher, like Warren Buffett, don’t just go ahead and pay more in taxes. He writes:
The Federal Government of the United States accepts donations. Seriously. They go right into the general fund, just like your taxes. Here’s the address to send them to. If you’re so inclined, you can apparently even earmark your donation for the specific purpose of reducing the federal debt.
Of course, not a lot of people do this. About $3.2 million was given to reduce the debt in 2011, and you can find the (generally much lower) figures for others years here. And while $3.2 million might sound like a lot, bear in mind that it’s about two-tenths of one percent of what Americans spend on ice cream in a given year.
Why so little? One possible explanation is that people are selfish – they’d rather spend the money on themselves, and they aren’t going to give it away to help others unless they’re forced to, as they are in the case of taxes. But this explanation is difficult to square with the large amounts of money that Americans give to charity each year – over $300 billion in 2009, the vast majority of which came from private individuals and bequests, not big corporations looking for a tax break.
So if selfishness isn’t the explanation, what is? I suggest the following: most people know that there are better and more efficient ways of using their money to help other people than giving it to government.
I think this is a pretty lousy argument, and I can’t see why libertarians keep making it. I know Matt understands collective action problems in, say, the provision of public goods. So…
Anyway, this could be any question about the rationality of complying with a rule that (1) you support, but (2) will only have its desired effect if general compliance with the rule is high, and (3) you suspect general compliance will not be high. Suppose I’m a utilitarian convinced that human consumption of meat causes a huge amount of animal suffering. And suppose I love meat, and giving it up would leave me worse off. I would happily comply with a no-meat-eating rule if I thought others would likewise comply. But in the absence of a mechanism (whether internal/moral or external/political) to enforce compliance, I rationally believe that my compliance with the no-meating-eating rule will have zero effect on market demand for meat. And suppose I rationally believe my heeding the rule will only make me worse off while making no animals better off. In that case it is perfectly rational to continue to eat meat even if I believe that it would be immoral to eat meat under conditions of general compliance with utility-maximizing rules. I think Matt’s voluntary taxpayer case is exactly analogous.
Matt seems to think there’s something significant about the fact that Americans contribute lots of money to charity, but I can’t quite see what it is.
In the comments to his post, Matt formalizes the argument a bit.
1) If people believed that giving money to government was a good way to help others, they would do so voluntarily.
2) They (mostly) don’t do so voluntarily.
3) Therefore, they don’t believe that giving money to government is a good way to help others.
4) It is therefore (from 3) odd for people to press for increased rates of taxation on the grounds that increased taxes will allow the government to help people.
It seems to me this simply ignores the strategic context of rule-compliance questions. Substitute 1) with 1a) If people believed that giving money to government was a good way to help others, provided they believe that many tens of millions of others will also give, they would do so voluntarily. I think this is probably true. We would do so voluntarily. But the only practical way to solve the assurance problem is the threat of state coercion. So we don’t give voluntarily. But people do voluntarily vote for the government to tax them, and everyone like them, at non-zero rates, and they do it over and over and over again. And they do it because they do believe a generally complied-with rule of giving a certain percentage of income to the government is a good way to help others. I’m afraid this argument won’t fly at all.