Tax code

by Rob Horning

21 September 2005


In the course of making a semi-controversial point in this New Yorker column about gas taxes, James Surowiecki makes a far more radical one: “Of course, in political terms the gas tax’s virtuessimplicity, transparency, immediacyёare vices. Politicians prefer complex systems that allow them to satisfy particular constituencies, reward supporters, and disguise the true costs of things. And, strangely enough, voters implicitly prefer indirect taxes to direct ones.” This seems to imply that the current tax system allows fat cats to shelter most of their money while the average Joe gets stuck with the costs of keeping the state running and performing such functions as pumping trillions of gallons of water out of a major coastal city and making sure old people don’t die for want of medical attention. Another case of the habitus—tax dodges are an upperclass entitlement that doesn’t even resister with them as an ethical quandary. Of course you find whatevre ways you can to minimize your burden. Of course you hire accountants to cook your returns with deductions and dubious business expenses. Of course charity matters only as a write-off.

But why is it, then,  that the wealthy are always pimping ultraregressive flat taxes, which are nothing if not simple? The danger is mistaking simplicity with fairness. That which is simple may seem democratic, in that anyone can understand it, but it is rarely fair. In a society as complex as ours, justice, it seems, will always require elaborate and near arcane systems of adjudication. Just as transparent, simple, readable prose may have the effect of simplifying and stultefying thought, so a simple tax system may have the effect of legitimizing an unfair social structure in the name of ease.


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