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You know that box on your tax form that tries to get you to give $3 to
federal elections? Checking it, says the form, sends your tax dollars to
politicians running for president. Doing so doesn’t mean that you will pay
more. Do it in the public interest, we are instructed.

The system was adopted in the early 1970s, and initially the numbers
checking the box were quite high. But people are no longer buying it. In
fact, nearly 9 in 10 don’t buy it. The figures for 1998 tax returns show
that only 11.3 percent of filers checked the box. This is down from 29
percent in the early 1980s.

This is a strong vote of no confidence in the political system — not
just the politicians who want to use the money, but also the apparatus of
government they inhabit. Give the people an ever-so-slight window of
opportunity to secede and they will take it. Even when it is only a symbolic
measure like the tax check-off, people use it to send a message.

If the early 1980s were a time when pundits say we didn’t trust
government, what does this say about us now? If 70 percent didn’t trust the
government in 1980, 90 percent don’t now. It’s no wonder the federal
government tries to close every possible window to letting the people speak
with their own tax dollars.

The news is very bad for the holy cause of publicly financed elections.
Consider this text from a 1991 public service ad put out by the feds:

On your federal income tax form, there’s a question about financing
presidential elections. Do you want one of your tax dollars to pay for
presidential campaigns? It won’t change your tax or reduce your refund. The
tax check-off decreases candidates’ reliance on large contributions from
individuals and groups.

At minimum, the refusal of people to check the box says that the
movement’s populist garb is a fraud. Given a costless opportunity to make
their preferences known, 9 in 10 tell these reformers to take a flying leap.

It’s clear, then, that the proponents of the check-off system have
explicitly seen it as a referendum on publicly financed elections, a means
for reducing the supposedly corrupt role of private money in politics.
People have had the chance to weigh in on the question, and it has proven to
be wildly unpopular. Given the evidence, isn’t it time proponents throw in the towel?
The left has this odd view that all private money is tainted and only public money
is free of sin. In fact, public financing is the surest way to lock up the system and
protect it from dissenting outsiders. Public financing secures elections as
a means for only people who love the status quo to participate. The hysteria over
Buchanan’s announcement for president was partly caused by the idea that
someone who doesn’t support the system could get matching funds.

Moreover, the real problem with campaign finance is not that there is too
much private money involved. The problem is that the stakes are too high.
Government has too much money to give away and too many favors to pass out. If the
office of the presidency and the Congress were occupied by people restrained by the
rule of law and the Constitution, elections might be more about the quality of the
candidate instead of what H.L. Mencken called an advance auction of stolen goods.

But the implications of the tax check-off collapse are even more
dramatic. It is encouraging evidence that a mark of our times is the nosedive in public
perceptions of government itself. Real conservatives should take heart:
these are times when liberals like Gary Wills feel they have to write books
explaining to us that government is not evil!

Too bad the federal form doesn’t include any other check-off
opportunities. When President George Bush proposed adding one that would
help pay for the reduction of the national debt, it was the only good idea to emerge from his
administration. But it was greeted with hoots and howls from the entire pro-government
establishment, and denounced as an idea that could quickly get out of hand.

Consider Michigan’s experience. Its tax form includes a check-off, not
for a seedy thing like an election, but for two items whose goodness is seemingly self
evident: a fund to help abused and neglected children and another for protection of
endangered wildlife. The result: a whopping 1.4 percent of taxpayers now
check the box. The rest of the 98.6 percent of the public are demonstrating
their vote of no-confidence that government can or should do even these
things.

For Michigan, this is also a historic low. This doesn’t mean that people
don’t like kids and animals and a million other nice things. During the rest of the
year, people freely give to every manner of charitable cause, to groups that use
the money efficiently and effectively. But why would any sane person willingly
give money to the government to either waste or be used to build bigger
bureaucracies to oppress us?

Currently 41 states have spending check-offs on their tax forms, most of
them instituted with the hope of demonstrating the public’s support for a
range of liberal causes. The actual result is an average participation rate
of 1 percent. No wonder government-loving liberals went nuts when Bush
proposed expanding the federal check-off system.

Tax check-offs are a bad idea if they involve new spending because there
will always be enough boneheads to check the box to give the bureaucrats a bit
more money. But insofar as they involve existing spending, these check-offs are a
great idea. Let’s put foreign aid, foreign wars, welfare, education funding, and
public housing on the tax form too. Let people have a say in exactly how their
money should be spent.

Once those results are in, the next step will be to permit a box on the
tax form that simply reads as follows: Check here if you would rather just keep your money.

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