Monday, June 20, 2011

Taxing Stupidity

Since my previous post was on a right wing misrepresentation of taxes and tax policy, I thought I would balance that by turning the microphone over to a right winger who has got it right on tax policy: we need to tax stupidity!

This is cartoonist Scott Adams, a right-of-centre wishy-washy libertarian (I generally detest libertarians, but honest ones like Adams I enjoy) who has a somewhat tongue-in-cheek proposal for taxing stupidity via a post on his blog, the Blog:
Tax policy has two purposes. One goal is to collect money to operate the government. The other goal is to promote public policy. For example, mortgage deductions are meant to encourage home ownership. Tax incentives are a proven way to change behavior. This makes me wonder if we could have a tax on stupidity and thereby reduce its prevalence over time. Seriously. The nation has a great interest in reducing stupidity.

Arguably, we already tax stupidity. When the government subsidizes student loans and helps fund colleges - that's a transfer of wealth from non-students to students. Okay, it's not exactly a tax on stupidity, but it's certainly a proof of concept.

One big obstacle to taxing stupidity is identifying it. We generally believe that anyone who has an opposing opinion is stupid. So we'd have to ignore politics and religion when designing our test for stupidity. That still leaves plenty of practical knowledge that can be tested for.

Suppose we developed a general knowledge test that had clear and indisputable answers. The questions could range from parenting skills, to healthy living, to how to apply for a job, to basic science, and perhaps some other school skills. The test could run thousands of questions long. And it would be entirely optional. If you choose to not take the test, you can simply pay a stupidity tax instead. If you take the test, and score 100%, you pay no stupidity taxes at all. And if you take the test and miss a few questions, you pay a stupidity tax that is prorated by your test score. You can take the test as many times as you like to improve your score.

I know that you libertarians object to government activism. I get that. I'm just curious as to whether tax policy could make a huge difference in the effectiveness of society by directly taxing stupidity. Suppose science is applied to the task of identifying the most important knowledge that an adult should possess. Could you find a few thousand bits of knowledge that successful people generally understand and unsuccessful people do not? If so, that could be the basis of the stupidity test. You might also want to include any information about science or economics that an involved citizen needs to make informed voting decisions. That might help the government become more effective over time.

As with most of my ideas, this one is thoroughly impractical. No elected official could support a tax on stupidity. And you'd create a cumbersome bureaucracy if you tried to implement such a thing. I'm just thinking ahead to the day I create my own principality, perhaps on some island, and design the tax system from scratch. I'd have to give some serious thought to a tax on stupidity. I think it might help to keep the nation out of a death spiral.
It is pleasant to see somebody on the right acknowledging a "role" for government in setting up a fair playing field for citizens and actively encouraging better outcomes for its citizens. I'm so tired of the right wing "government is the problem, not the solution" mantra. What about "private enterprise is the problem, not the solution" as evidenced by the 2008 financial crisis that has cost Americans over $10 trillion (see Wikipedia article on household wealth and 2000 crisis). The right loves to rant about the "harm" done by government, but fails to see the harm done by unconstrained capitalism. Government has a role: play the umpire, regulate business, encourage business, improve the lives of citizens. The radical right refuses to admit that any of these are proper roles of government. Tragic!

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