Nobody likes the tax collector, especially in April when lengthy forms and complex rules tax Americans’ minds every bit as much as their pocketbooks.But we grudgingly accept taxes as the way we turn over a portion of our private wealth to support our common wealth: schools, roads, social services, national defense and, yes, the massive bureaucracy that operates the government.
Eighteenth-century Americans weren’t so keen on tax collectors, either.
Two hundred and fifty years ago this spring, the colonists were first hearing of Parliament’s passage of the Stamp Act, a new levy that would add to the cost of all sorts of printed materials, including newspapers, pamphlets, legal documents and even playing cards.
They reacted as violently as we sometimes feel about the Internal Revenue Service. All across the colonies, appointed tax collectors were forced to resign their office, most under the threat of violence.
The British government was unamused.
The following January Parliament repealed the Stamp tax while simultaneously declaring its rightful authority to raise revenue in the colonies. After all, Britain was drowning in debt after the Seven Years War, and hadn’t a pretty good portion of it gone to defending the American colonies against French and Indian enemies? Why not make them pay their fair share?
Americans seized on the principle of “no taxation without representation” and started on the long road to revolution.
Repeated efforts by Britain to impose new taxes were greeted with what the Americans might call stiff resistance. The British called them mobs.
The Townshend Acts, the Tea Act, the Coercive Acts… over and over again, new measures fostered resentments on both sides of the Atlantic, and eventually war.
Today we have representation, but resentment lives on.
Opposition to the IRS has led Congress to curtail its funding, but at what point does it do more harm than good?
The IRS argues that we’ve crossed that threshold already. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, in an interview with the Washington Post, said the $350 million cut made last December cost at least $2 billion in lost revenue.
“When you lose 13,000 employees, which we’ve had to do because of the budget cuts,” said Koskinen, “you run up to physical limits of no matter how efficient you get, you clearly are becoming much less effective.”
The agency claims it lacks the manpower even to answer incoming phone calls, much less to properly collect taxes and chase cheaters. This leads, they say, to a frustrating cycle of nonresponsiveness that harms everyone.
We’re all in this together. We know it’s going to cost us some private wealth to pay for all of the things we need to build together.
So how can we fix this? Do we need to make the IRS stronger or weaker? Do we have the will to simplify the tax code? Will we pressure the candidates for president to make this a priority?
The health of our common wealth may hang in the balance of the much despised tax collector, villain in the annual rite we love to hate.