Choosing where your taxes go

Recently I had an idea which seemed a bit crazy to me. I tried to find as many flaws in it as I could, but I came up with many positives and few negatives. Thus, I’m turning this idea over to the SDMB, in the hopes that it will be thoroughly vetted: choosing tax allocation.

One of the most often heard complaints in regards to the government is along the lines of “So this is where my taxes are going, huh?”. People of all parties view themselves as funding things they disagree with. What if people could choose where their taxes go? I’m not necessarily talking about the specifics, such as how you’d actually go about doing it, as the system would be fairly complex, but as a basic idea, it seems to work. As an example, paying off the national debt is an issue different people prioritize in different ways. If you feel it’s very important, you could allocate a higher percentage of your tax dollars to paying it off, while your neighbor could choose to weigh things differently. In the end, you’re really just cutting out the middleman - we already elect officials who agree with us on where money should go and vote on the budget accordingly. As a less radical option, some areas of the budget seen as too important to be voted on - like, say, defense or safety net programs - could be pre-determined, but apart from those, I think it would work. The split up of the budget would mirror what the general population wants. So - yay or nay?

Do you really think the “general population” even knows what it takes to keep a government going on the most basic operational levels? To a large degree, the “general population” only notices many public services once they’re gone. It would be dogs chasing imaginary squirrels. You say you don’t want to talk about specifics but it’s precisely the specifics that would bring such a scheme down.

I doubt the IRS would get much funding.

That doesn’t even make any sense. The deficit is the difference between taxes and expenditure. The debt is a running total of deficits. It’s an excess of expenditure. How exactly would one elect for their taxes, which as a whole are insufficient, to pay off the debt?

Government would collapse, taking the rest of society with it. Not only do people not have the expertise or information to make such decisions, but funding would swing wildly according to the public mood of the moment; budgeting would be impossible.

Part of the reason we have a government in the first place is to take care of public goods and services that people won’t normally pay for. Allocating taxes is great if you want 100% of all tax revenue to go to starving children in Africa and kids with cancer, but nobody will say “yes, I WOULD in fact like some of my tax dollars to go towards maintaining the roads in my city.”

I suppose there’s a chance we’d get the allocation right as a society eventually, but not until after we have a near-apocalypse from ridiculously misallocated funding.

Edit: and we already have some level of tax control, what with deductions on income tax due to charity, tax credits if you want to specifically support your school, and so on.

Exactly. Given that popular referendums have resulted in some of the most asinine short-sighted decisions ever made by government, this is like saying let’s take the referendum model and apply it across the board to micromanage all aspects of government spending. What could possibly go wrong? It would be even worse than uninformed yokels micromanaging policy decisions – it would be misinformed yokels being told what to think by a variety of self-serving vested interests micromanaging those policy decisions. Or simply deciding on their own initiative that “lower taxes” is always better than “higher taxes” no matter what the issue is. And I imagine that programs that returned their money to them in terms of generous entitlements would be very popular.

You may as well just shut down the government and ask the last guy out to turn off the lights.

People learn about government programs primarily through the media, which is dominated by private corporate interests. We have no laws requiring the media to tell the truth.

Counter-proposal: Taxes are paid as they are now, but each taxpayer gets a receipt itemizing where the tax money they contributed went, in broad strokes (education, defense, social security, farm subsidies, etc.).

that’s why you elect representatives to allocate your tax money for you

I imagine the national debt would go away pretty soon, to be replaced by large cuts in spending. Would anybody lend money to a country run in such a way?

How would the government separate out “tax money”? Would the receipt be for all spending (including the spending of non-tax revenues) or would the government get to pick the most politically popular programs up to the amount of tax revenue and only put that on the receipt?

We kind of already have this. Check page 100 of the Form 1040 instructions. People don’t really pay attention. I’m not sure they care.

The only way I think it could begin to be workable is if only a portion of your taxes were spent at your discretion. As noted, who would fund the IRS?

The people who prioritize “paying off the national debt”, assuming that the IRS would continue to operate and rack up debt in the process.

You’ve never driven in Pennsylvania, have you?

Wouldn’t that violate the Establishment Clause since belief in PA road maintenance is pretty much mythical?

The only way I think something like this might work without catastrophe is if most of the budget was set by Congress as usual for the stuff required for operation and defense of the government, but some remnant (like 5 to 10%) is left as up to the taxpayers. And then if someone chooses “tax cut”, that doesn’t mean they get (5 to 10% of) their money back, it just means their 5-10% goes to a pool which then is divided up equally among tax payers.

I don’t understand this thread. Your tax money only goes to one place - to the government. After that, the government’s money may be spent on various expenses, but by that point it isn’t “your” money any more.

Any reason this would be bad is that funding would be subject to the widely fluctuating vagaries of the Joe Q Public’s overly-opinionated mind. If one year Fox News/CNN/New York Times does an expose on our forgotten, under-served veterans, everyone would be endorsing the Veteran Affairs “box” on their forms. The next year, if there’s another investigative report uncovering how corrupt the VA is, expect the majority of funding to be yanked. And those veterans go back to being forgotten and under-served.

Programs need to have some assurances that their funding streams are consistent year-to-year. Staff need to know they have job security, and contractors need to know they will be paid. And people receiving services need assurances that their checks aren’t going to suddenly dry up just because of the latest conspiracy theory that’s been going around.

Our law-makers are entrusted with this responsibility because they have constituents who will hold them accountable for mistakes. If Joe Q Public makes a mistake in how he votes, do the rest of us have the permission to kick him out of the country? If the answer is no, then this plan sucks.

I think it might be interesting if there was some portion of the government income that could be allocated through a referendum sort of process- like say… 250 billion taken evenly from all federal programs as a percentage of total funding (6%), and then reallocated via popular vote.

I’d be curious to see how that would be allocated by the people- would defense spending get a big boost, or would they choose to allocate it to the national debt, or would it go to social programs?

I don’t think that total popular federal budget creation is a good idea for the many reasons already listed, however.