As with presidential candidates before him, I believe Donald Trump should have made his tax returns public. But it was his choice.
Trump was elected even though he refused to release his tax returns. Obviously, not that many Americans cared enough about it to let his decision influence their vote. And that gives Trump's decision democratic legitimacy.
As Democrats strive to access and publicize Trump's tax returns, it becomes increasingly clear that everyone's tax privacy is in danger, as the political Left is increasingly eager to abolish it. On Saturday, for example, the New York Times' Binyamin Appelbaum argued for the mandatory release of all tax returns. Appelbaum and Democrats are wrong here.
For a start, were Trump to have committed any tax crimes in relation to his returns, he would have been charged by the IRS.
Appelbaum's broader suggestion is that all tax returns should be made public. He says that "disclosure could help to ensure that people pay a fair share of taxes. Americans underpay their taxes by more than $450 billion each year, more than 10% of total federal revenue. Publishing a list of millionaires who paid little or no taxes this year could significantly reduce the number of millionaires who pay little or no taxes next year."
The choice of words belies the central problem of his proposal. Note Appelbaum's implicit class-bias suggestion that the rich are cheating everyone else and must be held to the fiery light of justice. Is this true? Not at all.
The data show that the highest earning 20% of income taxpayers account for 87% of all federal income tax revenue. The idea, then, that "the rich" do not pay enough taxes is a stretch of both mathematics and the concept of fairness. The same data also show that these Americans pay more in income taxes than their share of national income. Remember that next time you see left-wing moralizing over tax fairness.
But the issue here isn't ultimately one of fairness in taxes paid. It's the question of government versus individual freedom and privacy. Appelbaum says that "Calling for more disclosure may seem discordant at a time of growing concern about privacy. But income taxation is an act of government, not an aspect of private life."
Again, he's wrong — as wrong as he would be in demanding that Medicare and Medicaid release the medical records of all the patients using those programs, or publish everyone's Social Security number for that matter. After all, these are all acts of government, are they not?
Yes, income taxation is an act of government. We should support efficient tax collection and effective enforcement against tax evasion. But income tax returns are rightly regarded by law as aspects of private life. After all, they speak not simply to earnings made by life choices, but also to deep personal questions such as debt, loans, medical bills, children, inheritance — intimate questions of family and identity. These are things that culture and jurisprudence have, until now at least, regarded as private matters deserving of public protection. Government only gets permission to ask about these things because it promises to safeguard our answers.
To its credit, the IRS feels the same way. Note how, amid all the great media attention over Trump's tax returns, those returns have not been leaked. The agency clearly recognizes that the principle of protecting private information is fundamental to its reputation as a responsible public servant.
There's also the question of where this ends. Appelbaum says his idea would promote moral good, but I suggest it has more likelihood of promoting the vice of envy, tax avoidance and evasion, and capital evacuation. Moreover, Appelbaum's principle could be extended much further. If all millionaire income tax returns must be released, then why not all their emails (maybe they are hiding business deals)? Why not their vacation expenses (maybe they are spending vast ill-gotten sums abroad)? Why not their children's income taxes (maybe the parents are subsidizing entrenchment of wealth)?
There's no reasonable limiting principle here. It's a slippery slope toward 1984.
Appelbaum concludes that "The question is whether Americans are willing to endure a little sunlight in the interest of fairness and equality."
But no, a little more sunlight is not always good thing. There's a reason we put doors on our bathrooms and curtains on our bedroom windows, even if everyone has some vague idea of what we do in those places.