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Reviewing Vanessa Williamson’s “Read My Lips”

In the latest issue of Barron’s I review Vanessa Williamson’s book Read My Lips: Why Americans are Proud to Pay Taxes.  Here are the opening paragraphs:

The marquee conclusion of Vanessa S. Williamson’s Read My Lips is that Americans’ much ballyhooed hostility to taxes is simply a myth. In fact, declares Williamson, “Americans treat taxes as a civic commitment, an act that helps define their ties to the community and the country….Being a taxpayer is a membership in one of the most exclusive of clubs.” Hence the subtitle: “Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes.”

The author, a fellow in governance studies at the Washington, D.C.–based Brookings Institution, has written a clear and fair-minded volume based on interviews about taxation with a wide range of mostly middle-income and lower-income Americans. But her core finding about the pride and pleasure that Americans take in paying taxes is not convincing.

Williamson bases her thesis on the fact that many interviewees, when asked how they feel about cutting a check to the government, responded similarly to Gabriel, 28, who describes himself as “leaning toward the Democratic Party”: “It feels good to be able to contribute and to know that you’re part of the reason why there’s an infrastructure in place.” Similar comments came from interviewees all across the political and ideological spectrum.

And yet another, very different sentiment also shows up frequently and is expressed by interviewees of all political stripes: a sense that government is unresponsive, or even downright hostile, to the interests of ordinary Americans. As the author herself notes about her interviewees: “But their idealism is derailed by a sense that the government—their government, the government they pay for—has let them down.”

Something here does not jibe. Why would people whose idealism about government has been derailed by that government’s behavior continue to feel great about being compelled to fork over a substantial share of their income to that same government? If people believe that Uncle Sam uses their tax dollars wastefully or destructively, in what sense are taxes the fees Americans pay for “membership in one of the most exclusive of clubs”? Actual clubs don’t have captive populations from whom they forcibly extract dues. And exclusive clubs especially are not likely to survive for very long if they let their members down.

UPDATE: Here’s Russ Roberts’s EconTalk podcast with Ms. Williamson.


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