TED Conversations

Bill Harrison


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How can we re-frame tax policy to make people happier about paying taxes and/or spending pro-socially?

We already require people to pay taxes, both for their own good and for the good of society as a whole. Michael Norton's talk, everyday experience, and our tribal evolutionary history suggest that pro-social spending makes us happier. Yet, many people hate paying taxes, possibly (as per Rory Sutherland's talk) because of the way tax policy is perceived or structured, or because they hate the lack of control as to where their money goes.

If you think social policies should be structured in such a way as to give the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people, then is there a way to structure tax policy in such a way to make people happier about paying taxes and/or spending pro-socially?

For example, maybe allowing (or requiring) people to pay some percentage of their taxes (beyond what they pay to the general fund) on some pre-approved set of necessary social programs, but allowing people to choose which ones, could be a policy that would promote pro-social behavior, and thereby produce happier and tighter-knit communities, nations, etc.

Such a policy would, in fact, be less restrictive than either taxation or education, both of which we already require. We don't allow selfish behavior (not paying taxes, remaining ignorant) in either of those cases, because we understand that pro-social laws and policies are necessary for society to function at all.

Policies like this are particularly necessary right now in the US, for example, where the country is extremely divided politically. This could also get the Mitt Romneys of the world to gain an appreciation of the interdependence that allows them to become and remain wealthy.

So, given that pro-social spending makes people happy (a la Michael Norton's talk) and given that re-framing where money goes can make people happier about paying money (as per Rory Sutherland's talk), how would you structure taxes so that people would be happier about paying them?


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    Apr 24 2012: Bill, do you believe people should be forced to be happy, even with the threat of violence or imprisonment if they do not comply?
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      Apr 24 2012: No, but as members of society, they should be required to pay taxes, with various levels of fines and sanctions if they choose not to comply.

      I find it interesting that this is less restrictive than taxation (which most people accept), but anything pro-social scares libertarians because it gets to the heart of the incoherence of their positions.

      Suppose you were allowed to pay $1,000 less in taxes, but you were required to spend $500 more on pro-social things - democratically elected representatives elected within a system with publicly financed elections decide that this policy would, on average, tend to make people happier and better off as a whole, leading to a more productive society. Would you be in favor of that?
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        Apr 24 2012: If I have the option of paying zero, and the government can send as many fines/letters as they want, and I can ignore them all with no physical violent consequence, then yes I would absolutely support your proposal. Perhaps the government could penalise me by putting my name in the paper to 'name and shame me' as antisocial - that would be fine and within their right as I do not own my reputation in the minds of others and I do not own the newspaper. But if you are relying on the threat of arrest/property confiscation (violence/theft) to enforce all of those letters and fines, then I am afraid I'd have to reject your proposal as inappropriate in any civilised discussion.
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          Apr 25 2012: in a civilised discussion would we not discuss the purpose of civilization and why we gather in numbers and what it means for you to be protected from me taking what i desire that which is now yours. We have a civil contract upheld by law. It protects you and our taxes pay for it.

          If your ideas are antisocial do you not defer the protection. I don't understand why you need to get to violence( and you expect protection from it) to pay some of the earning or theft whatever into the fund that allows you access to the game. I suggest you are not working in a vacuum or an libertarian enriched society. its a silly argument really especially for the wealthy.

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