Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Mass Ballot Question #1

This fall Massachusetts voters will be asked whether or not to eliminate the state's income tax. The issue, relentlessly pushed for years by the state's Libertarian Party is a perfect example of why the Framers of the Constitution sought to create a "representative" democracy at the national level and to guarantee it in each state.

While the will of the people is the basis for democratic government, the Framers understood the need to "refine" the peoples' will by filtering it through representative institutions. Direct democracy, of which a ballot measure is an example, is COMPLETELY absent in the US Constitution. Without mediating institutions the will of the people is much too easily manipulated and distorted for the advancement of particularized interests.

Eliminating the state income tax in Massachusetts would reduce state government revenue by more than 50%. While each citizen can be shown that they are personally benefiting from only a small percentage of government spending (making this measure individually attractive), a reduction of government spending by half would slash ALL government services to the bone.

Supporters of this measure assume that with only half the revenue, state government would only be able to do its most fundamental tasks. What they do not realize is that there is no clear consensus on which tasks are "most fundamental." Because eliminating the income tax will not eliminate electoral politics in the state, what is and is not appropriately provided or subsidized by the state will continue to be determined by politics and public opinion. The temptation to slash the revenues of a government that you think is over-taxing you is great, but the unintended consequences of such a radical move would produce a monstrous backlash as more and more citizens start to appreciate what has been lost.

If this ballot measure were to succeed, it would likely bring the end of the Libertarian Party in Massachusetts and hasten a populist movement to beat all populist movements. The best result for the measure's proponents is a narrow defeat, which would add fuel to their anti-government rhetorical fire, without forcing them to take responsibility for burning down the state with their rigid ideological dogma.

While I will certainly oppose the measure, I must admit to a quiet hope that it passes and serves to totally discredit its advocates. It's like when a parent is constantly nagged by children to give them something they want that the parent knows would harm them. I'm sure every parent is tempted (under duress) to give in and let the kids learn the hard way. Of course, better judgement prevails and the responsible parent accepts the "bad guy" label in exchange for the greater good. This ballot measure provides voters with a similar temptation. I hope and expect that voters will act responsibly and oppose the measure for the greater good, even though doing so will encourage the wrath and whining of the childish, anti-government zealots among us.

As a political scientist, I have long recognized the failure of most citizens to realize what the government does and how important its activities are to the daily lives of individuals. Americans take the good things government does for granted. Those who feel overly burdened by government have the greatest incentive to organize to make it look bad. The majority of us who get more than we give from government are not motivated to similarly organize in support of government. Eliminating the state income tax would radically change the incentive structure for political activism in a way that would soon horrify those supporting this measure. I have to admit, I wouldn't mind seeing that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Maybe the politicians will wake up and realize they can't continue to waste taxpayers money and keep "going back to the well" to increase taxes when there are shortfalls which this legislation will certainly create. I am sure that the politicians will scramble and pass legislation to increase taxes elsewhere and in the meantime maybe we will get a break for a year or two.