Paul L. Caron

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Buchanan: Taxes, Information, and Democracy

Neil H. Buchanan (George Washington), Taxes, Information, and Democracy:

Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Scott Brown (R-MA) have seized upon such logic, recently proposing the Taxpayer Receipt Act, which would require the IRS to send everyone who files an income tax return an "itemized receipt ... that lists where their payroll and income taxes are spent. The receipt would include key categories such as the interest on the national debt, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, national defense, education, veterans’ benefits, environmental protection, foreign aid – and, last but not least, Congress."

This is the type of idea that appeals to the purveyors of the conventional wisdom. The editorial page of The Boston Globe, for example, endorsed the idea enthusiastically, saying that it "should appeal to citizens across the political spectrum." President Obama is apparently on board. Who, after all, could be against providing people with more information? Informed debates are better than uninformed ones.

The problem is that, especially when the subject is something as complicated and wide-ranging as the activities of a national government, all attempts to provide information must be highly selective. Deciding what not to say is often more important than deciding what to say. Moreover, facts out of context can be highly misleading. The Taxpayer Receipt proposal is already set up to be slanted in favor of certain policy choices, and my suspicion is that over time it would become yet another area for partisan battle over how to manipulate public perceptions.

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