I love tax season, and not just because of the dancing sign-wavers wearing Statue of Liberty costumes on the street corners. Tax season is almost certainly the easiest time of the year to be a libertarian, as for a few short months, the general public suddenly remembers that the government has been stealing from them. Those who attempt to do their own taxes become aware of exactly how much money has been taken from their paychecks. People are often surprised, and not typically because the amount is just so small! Despite the American tax system being intentionally designed in such a way as to minimize the likelihood that the average citizen will ever think about it, this is the time of year when some people actually do.
It’s also the time of year that we see commercials for tax services, specifically for H&R Block. In recent years, they’ve adopted a somewhat interesting advertising strategy based on the premise that without the help of a professional, you are likely to pay more in taxes than legally required. Their most recent commercial claims that the government overcharged Americans a combined total of $1 billion last year. I’m not sure how they arrived at that figure exactly, but it’s kind of staggering to think about.
As far as I know, H&R Block primarily markets itself to middle-income families and working professionals (the truly wealthy who need expert tax advice are likely depending on personal tax attorneys and accountants). The implication of this ad is that the government has overcharged you. They have “your” money, and H&R Block can help you get it back. While it doesn’t go as far as to suggest that taxation in general is illegitimate, it certainly is openly suggesting that everyone would benefit by paying as little in taxes as possible, taking advantage of every possible deduction, subtraction, and loophole. There is no inkling of Joe Biden’s notion that paying taxes is “patriotic,” nor the slightest insinuation that any individual taxpayer might not be paying their “fair share.”
I consider this to be a somewhat subversive message, because it certainly runs contrary to what we’re often told by the political class – that taxes are a virtue, that true patriots love paying them, and that most people, especially the wealthy, absolutely wouldn’t mind paying a little bit more than is absolutely necessary. If any of that nonsense were true, H&R Block wouldn’t exist. They certainly wouldn’t base their marketing strategy around the premise of “Paying as little in taxes as you possibly can is such a great thing, you should pay us to help you do it.”
It’s also the kind of commercial that just might get people thinking. It might get someone to consider some questions, questions which may lead to more general contemplation about the government and the income tax system as a whole. Questions such as: “Why is the tax code so complex?” or “Why is it okay for someone to commit an error on their taxes in the government’s favor, but if you commit an error in your favor, you are heavily penalized or possibly even jailed?” Thinking about these issues is a small first step down the rabbit-hole of rejecting government authority entirely.
The ultimate irony in all of this is that, if you’re opposed to the income tax entirely, H&R Block is far from your ally. They themselves depend on the tax code being insanely complicated in order to generate potential customers. Any political proposition to “Put the IRS out of business,” would almost certainly put H&R Block out of business as well. They’re walking a very thin line here. They want Americans to possess a strong desire to obtain the highest possible tax refund, but at the same time, they certainly don’t want Americans to despise the tax system to the extent that they might actually vote for any meaningful reform. In a free market, H&R Block simply wouldn’t exist. They have a very bizarre love/hate relationship with the IRS in the sense that they are adversaries, but only a little bit. They’re like football players on opposing teams who shake hands and go out for a beer after the game.
The fact of the matter is that even if you believe taxation is a moral good, $1 billion in “unclaimed deductions,” (or whatever you want to call it) means that the government is stealing from the public at large. This is money that the government took out of your paycheck that you do not actually owe. In any other context, this would be a criminal offense. The notion that the onus is on you to correct them is absurd. If a business was found to be intentionally and repeatedly overcharging its customers and leaving it up to them to request refunds, the government would absolutely fine the owners and threaten them with length jail time. The public at large would be outraged at such a dishonest practice. And yet, when the government does it to us, we just sort of collectively shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, that’s just the way it is.”
But it doesn’t have to be. We don’t have to live under such a ridiculous and tyrannical system. Of course, to avoid this problem, we have a couple different options. One is to go to H&R Block and pay them a bunch of money, hoping that they might be able to find a couple poorly-worded grey areas in the tax code that you can take advantage of in order to save a few hundred bucks. Or, we can change our worldview entirely, and promote a society founded on voluntary cooperation, at which point all the government bureaucrats, IRS agents, and the H&R Block code-talkers will have to get jobs that are actually productive to society. Forget getting our “billion back.” I think we should aim a little higher. In 2012, the federal government alone took in over $2.4 trillion in tax dollars. Let’s get our $2.4 trillion back, America!