Humans Might Actually Like Taxes

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article by Jonah Lehrer asking whether humans might not be as averse to paying taxes as our political discussion currently assumes. He describes a study by scientists at Caltech which showed that people dislike inequality. Study participants were put into scanners, and the pleasure areas of their brains lit up more when money was given to others than when money was given to them. This was especially true of those who had started the study “rich,” which was determined by random assignment. Following this study to its logical conclusion, perhaps people who are well off might not be as unhappy as politicians seem to think about paying higher taxes to help the less fortunate.

However, Lehrer points out that the random assignment of riches skews the study. Other studies have shown that this altruism effect is less powerful when the rich feel that their wealth is earned. When we bring this back to politics and tax rates it opens a whole can of worms. What is “earned” in a society where massive advantages (not just wealth) are passed down through the generations? I won’t open that can of worms here, but point you to this post from last year on some of the challenges of “earning” wealth for the lower classes.

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2 responses to “Humans Might Actually Like Taxes

  1. I think the question for me is will I get what I pay?

    I lived and voted in Northern Virginia at a time when a local tax would have to be approved by voters to allegedly improve the transportation situation (traffic in the DC Area being a nightmare only somewhat less horrific than LA’s). I joined the majority of citizens, generally very liberal, and voted down the measure. I didn’t then and don’t believe now that the tax would have made any difference at all.

    On the other hand, I later lived in a city of about 26k that had the highest tax rate in the region, and I thought we got our money’s worth. The city services were excellent in most regards, perhaps because the population was relatively small, and I certainly didn’t see the “cut taxes, cut spending, freeze city employee salaries” argument ever make much traction there.

    Ironically, that city and the surrounding region were very Republican and quite conservative (including a very strong Bible-Belt contingent), but there was no question about the quality of the services paid for by taxes and fees levied by the city. The message was obvious, voters could expect to get their money’s worth, and they were willing to pay that money.

  2. That’s a great point. If people think their money is being wasted, they are much less likely to be happy about paying taxes. Thus government needs to be efficient and competent in order to get more revenue…just like a business. This also plays into the Republican strategy to always demonize government, which makes citizens think their money is being wasted even if it isn’t.

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