Are We Being Taxed to Death?

Published October 10, 2005

Governments in the U.S. take approximately 40 percent of the country’s total income in taxes. In other words, nearly half of all the income generated each year is sent to governments to spend.

The good news is that a growing number of people pay no federal taxes at all. According to a recent Tax Foundation report, 29 million people had no federal income tax liability in 2000, and the number was expected to reach 44 million in 2004. The bad news is that people who do pay taxes much pay more to make up for those who pay nothing.

Writes Daniel Mitchell at The Heritage Foundation, “According to data from the Internal Revenue Service, the top 1 percent of income earners pay nearly 35 percent of the income tax burden; the top 10 percent pay 65 percent; and the top 25 percent pay nearly 83 percent. The bottom 50 percent of income earners, on the other hand, pay barely 4 percent of income taxes.”

Federal income taxes are only a small portion of the taxes we pay. We also pay federal payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare, state income taxes, state and local sales taxes, property taxes, death taxes, and excise taxes.

Except for excise taxes, these taxes fall most heavily on the most productive members of society. This doesn’t make excise taxes better: They fall randomly and unfairly on people based on their habits and needs without regard to their ability to pay or use of public services.

Spending Drives Tax Hikes

The growth of government spending is what makes this tax burden necessary. The federal budget grew 14 percent in President George W. Bush’s first three years, with discretionary spending growing nearly 50 percent. The 2006 Bush budget would increase the Department of Education budget by 40 percent since 2001 and the Department of Commerce budget by 85 percent.

Bush’s 2006 budget was supposed to be an “austerity” budget that finally would rein in spending, but it started with a proposed 3.6 percent increase in federal spending and has taken wing from there. The energy and transportation bills signed by the president are budget busters, and the just-announced spending to “rebuild New Orleans” is likely to make 2006 another record-breaker.

If government is too big, as Republicans love to chant, why is it growing larger and at a record pace with a Republican president and Republicans in control of both houses of Congress? Why did it grow at a slower rate when Bill Clinton was in the White House?

Meanwhile, state governments have been indulging in their own spending orgy. Between 1990 and 2000, total state spending grew by a staggering $512 billion, or 89 percent. All of that new built-in spending is moving through today’s budgets like a pig through a python, causing state politicians to cry about “budget cuts” even as they reap record revenue increases due to the reviving national economy.

Work to be Done

Voters need to hold to the fire the feet of elected officials, and especially Republicans who pretend to be pro-taxpayer. Officials who cut taxes and balance budgets need to be rewarded with success at the ballot box, and those who raise taxes and increase spending should be targeted by taxpayer groups and lose elections.

Tax and expenditure limits, such as Colorado’s Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights (TABOR), are a structural solution to the problem of too much spending during good economic times and tax hikes during bad times. Efforts are underway across the country to adopt TABOR through referenda and initiative where they are allowed, or legislatively if not. Those efforts deserve everyone’s support.

Voters need to be far more aggressive in opposing excise taxes and so-called “sin taxes.” These taxes often pass by dividing the public–pitting smokers against nonsmokers, beer drinkers against nondrinkers, tourists against residents, and so on. They are easily hidden from taxpayers, a good example being the Spanish-American War tax on telephone service.

Privatization and outsourcing of government services are widespread, have been closely studied, and typically increase the quality of services provided while reducing spending. They need to be promoted and aggressively defended against attacks by public-sector labor unions and their allies on the left.

It’s easy to complain about taxes and then do nothing to lower them, but how free are you when governments take half or more of your income? Even serfs in the 16th and 17th centuries typically owed their feudal lords only a quarter of their crops and livestock, and often much less.

Our forefathers fought a war for independence over taxes that were far lower than those we now pay without complaint. It’s time we got up off our sofas and demanded real tax relief.

Joseph L. Bast ([email protected]) is president of The Heartland Institute and publisher of Budget & Tax News.