THIS IS a blueprint for rebellion -- a blueprint for a gradual, peaceful overthrow of our government as it is now constituted.
We believe that our government no longer functions as it was originally and uniquely conceived. The keystone of that original conception was the daring view held by Thomas Jefferson and others -- that there was "no better repository of power than the people." Yet, 200 years later, most Americans feel powerless in the face of a ponderous, smothering, intrusive and powerful government.
The themes of helplessness and alienation are present everywhere. Many people don't vote because they feel that their votes don't matter. Washington seems a strange, isolated place where shadowy things go on that the people feel powerless to influence or change. It is as if the entire country were watching someone drown and no one was able to save him. Even the president seems unable to do anything to correct the abuses.
If the people, the president and Congress are unable to gain control of the government, where is the power? We believe that most of it is locked into our $500 billion annual budget -- that money is the power. Every dollar we send to the government gives it one dollar's worth of power. The problem seems to be how to gain some control over this money. The money flows from the people to the government. As long as the flow is constant, the money will continue to be spent unwisely.The corruption of the system has been that the money is assured, no matter how it is misspent. There is no strong motivation for reform. Dollars remain a substitute for ingenuity and good sense.
We propose a revolutionary change in the relationship of the people to their government. The ballot has lost much of its power. To restore power to the people, to restore the intent and uniqueness of our participatory democracy, we propose the following:
The people should directly allocate their taxes. Each citizen should decide the amount of his or her money to be given each government agency or program. The budget of each government agency would then be the total allocated by the people.
It would thus be the responsibility of the various departments of government to convince the people -- each year -- that their particular function was necessary and desirable, and dserved financial support. (This would guarantee the zero-based budgeting that government spokesmen so eagerly desire.)
Taxes not allocated by citizens would be rebated to the people.
Elective taxation would apply to the entire budget, with the following exceptions: (1) In time of a national emergency, the procedure would be suspended where necessary; (2) The salaries and necessary overhead of the judiciary and elected officials would be exempt; (3) Obligations made by the government prior to the establishment of elective taxation (the national debt, pensions of retired government workers, etc.) would have to be honored; (4) Other exceptions, such as Social Security, could be made but would have to be decided on a case-by-case basis.
Legislators would, of course, retain the power to pass laws. But the power to fund agencies and programs set up by legislatures would lie with the people.
Elective taxation could be applied at any or all levels of government.
The federal budget is now virtually incomprehensive to the average person. If Americans are becoming increasingly alienated from their government, they are already totally alienated from the budget of the government. The numbers have become so astronomical that people can no longer relate to them. Our plan, elective taxation, will reduce the budget to a scale that the people -- who actually pay the freight -- can understand and control.
Any proposed change as drastic as this one is bound to be controversial. We have discussed our proposal with hundreds of Americans, from ordinary citizens to political scientists, and many have questioned its details and challenged its basic thrust. We believe there are good answers to all of these objections.
It won't work -- people wouldn't pay.
We believe it will work, that there is strong evidence the American people are responsible and intelligent enough to make good decisions about the kind of society they want to live in. Would anyone spend $6,000 for a car and then not appropriate money to fix the potholes in the roads? It is inconceivable that people would not appropriate tax money for essential government services.
As a matter of fact, there is a long-standing, well established precedent that demonstrates the success of arrangements such as that proposed here -- our volunteer fire departments. These departments, supported by voluntary contributions, have been successful throughout our history. School bond issues are another case of people voluntarily taxing themselves. In the past, these bonds were approved most of the time by the electorate. Only recently, when people have begun to realize that they are getting less education for more money, have they very reasonably become much more reluctant to approve such bonds.
We believe there is a great well of honest patriotism, good sense and generosity in this nation. Historically, from Alexis de Tocqueville on, foreigners have been impressed by American community spirit and practical cooperation. Volumes have been written on the generosity and enlightened self-interest of the American people. The list is endless: Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Red Cross, NAACP, ACLU, YMCA, the Salvation Army, March of Dimes, Muscular Dystrophy, and so on. And we are still giving and volunteering and caring; we still have the patriotism and generosity that impressed Tocqueville. But we are becoming cynical. The well is being poisoned by the government, by the waste, irresponsibility and high salaries for little work. Everyone is aware of it; in fact, it's a not-very-funny national joke.
Would people pay for the poor and disadvantaged?
Again, it is an insult to the American people to suppose that they would not. One of the clearest issues in the 1964 presidential election was the choice between Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs and Barry Goldwater's advocacy of laissez-faire for the poor. Johnson won in a landslide. People became angry not at the aims of the programs, but at the wasteful, inefficient way the programs were run.
Almost every social service now provided by the government was originally funded by individuals giving their money freely: social welfare, abolition of slavery, adoption agencies, orphanages, hospitals, prison reform, schools for the deaf and blind, etc.Therefore, can one really believe that these activities -- when rationally administered -- would not be supported by the same citizens who, in fact, originated them and, by their votes, incorporated them into our governmental system?
How would the government plan?
How does the Red Cross plan? How does Common Cause plan? How does IBM or General Motors plan? How do volunteer fire departments plan? None of these organizations has the guaranteed revenue that the government has. But they manage to make reasonable projections of their income every year and to make reasonably good decisions based on these projections.
One may ask the question, how does the government plan now? Not very well, if one considers the many expensive weapons programs, dams, social programs, etc. that have been junked after enormous expenditures because they were poorly conceived or not necessary. In fact, one is inclined to think that the momentum of the money is a more important element than good planning in most government programs. It is likely that non-government programs, since they are dependent on results assessed yearly by the people funding them, are better planned than government activities where funds continue to pour in whether the people funding them were pleased or not.
Wouldn't this plan turn the government into a high-powered public relations operation?
Perhaps. However, this would not be all bad. PR people specialize in making things interesting. If they could succeed in making the government more interesting to the people, they would be worth every penny we would pay them. As people became interested, they would become educated. As they became more educated, they would demand more "Truth in Government" and would respect the officials who gave it to them.
As the dialogue between the government and the people becomes serious, there will be many equalizing forces, including the press, to make certain that the warts show. A purely cosmetic campaign can be risky . . . we have our Edsels and Nixons to prove it.
Every year the government would have to make a plain case for its activities and programs. This would open a great dialogue between the government and the people, with the people having the precious balance of power. The government would have to convince the people that it was a good steward of their money.
The dialogue could be conducted in many ways. We propose a TV channel be set aside for this purpose. In this age of electronic communications, why not use this as an adjunct to government? It is used when the president wants support for a particular program.Why not have all programs explained to us in the same way.
Each year, the government would include in all income tax forms an extra page. This page would have on it the government's projected budget, listed by percentages. Only the major budgetary departments would be listed -- probably 15 to 20 of the largest agencies. The people could either accept the budget as proposed or make changes. If the new percentages totaled less than 100, the citizen would designate the remaining percent as a tax refund. The total of all tax refunds would be divided proportionately among the taxpayers.
Citizens wishing to be more specific and selective in their designations would request a long form which would include a more detailed listing of programs, such as "solar energy research", "bilingual education," "mass transit," etc. To help everyone make informed choices, we would expect that guidebooks would be available from other sources such as Common Cause, the National Taxpayers Union, labor unions, etc.
To preserve the principle of "One man, one vote," each citizen eligible to vote -- regardless of their tax status -- would be given an equal share of the budget to allocate. For example, if the proposed federal budget were $500 billion and there were 100 million people eligible to vote, each person's allocation would be $5,000. People not filing would be assumed to accept the government's budget.
While individual income taxes only account for just under half of government revenues, citizens will be allocating the entire budget (with the exceptions noted previously, such as salaries of elected officials), ultimately it is the individual citizen who pays for the government, whether directly or indirectly. Take the corporate tax as an example: Corporations are no more than legal entities involving transactions between owners, employes and consumers. Every penny of corporate tax is paid by one of these three groups of people.
It is not our intention to disrupt the government. Although many Americans would probably enjoy seeing a good number of government employes put out on the street, the plan would have to be implemented gradually. For example, in the first year, perhaps 5 percent of taxes would become discretionary; the next year, another 5 percent, and so on. No single agency would suffer a disruptive cut in funds. Cuts in funds for staff could be handled by no new hiring, attrition and reassessment of jobs. Simple economy may also be considered.
The citizens' budget would be a recommendation to Congress. While Congress could choose not to follow this budget, it would do so at some political risk. In time, the people may decide that their budget should be binding on Congress. If so, a constitutional amendment would be necessary because the Constitution gives Congress power over taxation and the budget.
Traditionally, the vital moment between citizen and government has been in the voting booth. Clearly, citizens have been rejecting this. Voter turnout is way down. The symbiotic relationship that exists between the people and their leaders has deteriorated. We feel that citizens sitting down with their forms in front of them will begin a new relationship, with a new moment of truth between citizens and their government.
A spirit of desperation has entered the relationship between the people and their government. Nearly everyone feels the government is out of control and must be curbed; yet no one as yet has been able to accomplish this feat. We see this plan as a daring experiment to readjust the increasing imbalance of power. It would strengthen the hand of conscientious legislators against the many narrow but powerful special interest groups by giving the people a chance to show what they want and how much they are willing to pay for it. It will certainly renew the arguments of 200 years ago: Can the people be trusted? We believe, with the Founding Fathers, that the answer is a resounding "Aye!"