Hidden amongst the reams of reports about the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) scandal is one little gem: in his testimony, the outgoing IRS Commissioner Steve Miller said that America’s tax system is “voluntary.”
Now, whatever you do, don’t take that to mean that it is actually voluntary in the way that the word voluntary is normally used.
While you might think that voluntary means something which is “done without compulsion or obligation” or “done, made, brought about, undertaken, etc., of one’s own accord or by free choice,” when it comes to America’s “voluntary” tax system, it’s quite the opposite.
If you freely choose not to voluntarily participate in the tax system, you will enjoy being raided by armed agents, prosecuted and sent to federal prison. Quite the voluntary system indeed.
Furthermore, there are some practices that are clearly in no way voluntary. When income taxes are withheld from paychecks, for example, there is nothing voluntary about it.
When Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said during the recent House Ways and Means Committeehearing on the IRS scandal that the U.S. tax system is “a voluntary system,” Stephen Miller said, “Agreed.”
In fact, Becerra said it is “a voluntary system” twice. Becerra said those exact words at one hour, twenty nine minutes and eight seconds and again at one hour, thirty minutes and thirty five seconds, according to the C-SPAN transcript.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the same thing in an interview with Jan Helfeld in 2008.
In the interview embedded below, Helfeld asked, “If the government is in the business of forcefully taking money from some people in order to provide welfare benefits to others, how will the people whose money is being taken feel about the government?”
“Well, I don’t accept your phraseology. I don’t think we force people,” Reid answered.
“Taxation is not forceful?” Helfeld asked.
“Well, no…” Reid said. “It’s voluntary?” Helfeld asked.
“Quite the contrary. Our system of government is a voluntary tax system,” Reid said.
“If you don’t want to pay your taxes, you don’t have to?” Helfeld asked, to which Reid said, “Of course you have to pay your taxes.”
Intuit, the makers of TurboTax, wrote an article (note: it heavily promotes TurboTax) about what “voluntary compliance” really means. It has nothing to do with the payment of the taxes. That is not voluntary. Instead, it speaks to “the manner in which people submit their own taxes.”
The voluntary part only speaks to the fact that you “are responsible as an individual taxpayer tocalculate what you owe. You’re expected to voluntarily comply with the tax code by reporting what you owe to the government and paying the entire amount that you owe under the law.”
“Although the U.S. tax system is voluntary, failure to comply carries stiff penalties,” they note. “The IRS also has the power to levy your bank accounts, garnish your wages and place a lien on your property if you don’t voluntarily pay what you owe. In serious cases, you may even face criminal charges.”
Lysander Spooner, in “No Treason” written from 1967-1870, writes of the notion of voluntary taxation, “this theory of our government is wholly different from the practical fact. The fact is that the government, like a highwayman, says to a man: ‘Your money, or your life.’ And many, if not most, taxes are paid under the compulsion of that threat.”
Calling taxation voluntary in the United States is like calling a prison sentence voluntary: you can voluntarily go to prison, or you can be hunted down like a dog and physically forced to go to prison.
If that’s what you consider a voluntary system, I have several beautiful bridges to sell you.
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