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Tax and spend with a twist

Hal Clifford is the executive editor of Orion magazine.

Voting with your dollars is the basis of the capitalist system. Do you like low prices? Shop at Wal-Mart -- the company will thrive, and you’ll save money. Love songbirds? Buy songbird-friendly coffee. Tired of the poor service at your local shoe store? Head for Zappos.com. The market is built around the idea that we vote with our pocketbooks.

But with nearly $1.2 trillion of our hard-earned money, we can’t vote at all. That’s the amount Americans will pay in income tax this year. We’ll send it to the IRS, and then Congress and the administration will do with it pretty much whatever they and their lobbyist friends want.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If the free market is so great (and it is), why aren’t we using it for our taxes too? Why can’t we vote with our tax dollars, choosing how to spend them to shape the world we want?

Wouldn’t tax time be a lot more fun if, at the end of your return, you found a pie chart and a list? The pie chart would show you how last year’s taxes were spent. The list would let you vote on where you want your money to go. Love national parks? Give the Department of the Interior a generous slice. Against the war? Zero out the Department of Defense.

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Individual income taxes account for slightly less than half of the roughly $2.4 trillion the IRS collected last year. So the less-sexy programs (crop research, say, or U.S. Mint operations) could still be funded by Congress with other revenues. And because some taxpayers inevitably wouldn’t designate any choices, there would still be a little slush fund for Congress to spend on pet projects. What about really critical things like Social Security or education? There’s the beauty! Taxpayers decide what’s really critical. And if we don’t like what we achieve, well, we get to decide again the next year.

It’s true that the U.S. is not constituted as a direct democracy but as a republic in which our elected representatives are supposed to legislate the will of the people. But let’s have a show of hands: Who really believes Washington is doing the bidding of average Americans? Yes, I thought so.

Imagine actually looking forward to paying taxes! I would be delighted to designate where my dollars go. There could be an online ballot allowing good-government geeks like me to dig deeper, voting for specific programs (anti-malarial efforts in Africa, say, or the war on drugs).

Because voters would feel and be more invested in government, voluntary payment of taxes would go up, increasing receipts and cutting collection costs. Participation in our democratic processes would get a much-needed boost. On the down side, tax time would take on a certain campaign feel as interest groups and lobbyists tried to persuade Americans to fund their pet causes.

But I’d much prefer to put the fate of the republic in the hands of its citizens, frankly -- even those citizens who watch way, way too much “America’s Next Top Model” -- than leave it in the charge of Washington’s political elite.

Do you, dear think-tanker, blogger, pundit or lobbyist, really, truly believe your ideas are worthy of my money? Some of you may quail at the prospect of the free market actually being applied to your sacred cows. But if you have the courage of your convictions, let’s put our money where our mouths are. Let’s vote our taxes.


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