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Fiscal Force


“I know ev’rybody’s income and what ev’rybody earns; And I carefully compare it with the income-tax returns;” — W.S. Gilbert, Princess Ida

April is the cruelest month, for reasons other than what T.S. Eliot had in mind. This is the month in which you must account for yourself to Caesar. The authorities, having relieved you of a goodly portion of your earnings before you even caressed the banknotes, now demand you show cause why you should not remit still more.

And in further demonstration of the principle that the citizen in this beloved democracy is the master and the government the mere servant, you are requested to affix your signature ’neath these calming words: “Under penalties of perjury, I declare that I have examined this return and accompanying schedules and statements, and to the best of my knowledge and belief, they are true, correct, and complete.”

Those who find such threats — sorry, I mean words — unduly harsh have clearly not visited the friendly IRS website. There you will find much useful information, including the “truth about frivolous tax arguments.” These are the sundry claims that no American citizen is legally obliged to pay the income tax. The IRS apparently feels it is necessary to educate any American who labors under the delusion that he may not be deprived of his property against his will.

The first “frivolous argument” is that filing an income tax return is voluntary: “Proponents point to the fact that the IRS itself tells taxpayers in the Form 1040 instruction book that the tax system is voluntary.” Considering the source of the argument, it might seem something more than frivolous. But, alas, the government subscribes to the Humpty-Dumptian philosophy of language found in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass: “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’”

As the IRS explains, “The word ‘voluntary,’ as used in Flora [v. United States] and in IRS publications, refers to our system of allowing taxpayers to determine the correct amount of tax and complete the appropriate returns, rather than have the government determine tax for them…. The court clearly states, ‘although Treasury regulations establish voluntary compliance as the general method of income tax collection, Congress gave the Secretary of the Treasury the power to enforce the income tax laws through involuntary collection.’”

That, I submit, is a most peculiar definition of “voluntary.” My American Heritage Dictionary has a rather different take on the word. Its primary definition is: “Arising from or acting on one’s own free will.” The second definition includes the words “done willingly.” But that’s not what the IRS means at all. By “voluntary” it means: Volunteer or else! But what if one should choose not to volunteer to determine the correct amount of tax and complete the appropriate returns? I have a feeling the IRS will not respond thus: Well, we just thought we’d ask. Thanks anyway.“

If filing is not voluntary, how about actually paying the tax? No dice. According to the IRS, the two go together like love and marriage. “The requirement to pay taxes is not voluntary,” the website states.

Let us pause. The IRS has established, at least to its own satisfaction, that we have no choice about filing returns and paying taxes. Failure to comply can bring fines and imprisonment. What does this prove? It proves what libertarians have been saying for eons — that taxation is theft. Here it is right from the taxman’s mouth: taxation is not the price we pay for civilization; it is not dues for country-club privileges; it is not a sacred rite of democracy. It’s theft — unalloyed and unabashed.

I can accept the government’s theft. I don’t like it, but I can live with it if I must. (What choice have I?) What I can’t accept are insults to my intelligence. Memo to the IRS commissioner: Drop the word “voluntary” from your literature. We’re not idiots.

But I risk frivolity, don’t I? And we all know the penalty for that.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at 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.