Last year, when billionaire investor Warren Buffett created a storm by arguing that Congress should reform the tax system that allows him to pay a lower effective rate than his secretary, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell quipped, “if he’s feeling guilty about it, I think he should send in a check.”
This is the common refrain from anti-tax lawmakers and pundits: rich people like Buffett who believe they pay too little in taxes should just make a voluntary contribution to the IRS and stop pestering Congress to raise taxes. Republicans in both chambers of Congress introduced bills to encourage such voluntary contributions, and one was approved by the House of Representatives last week.
Last week, we also learned that presidential candidate Mitt Romney, did, in effect, make a voluntary contribution to the IRS when he decided to forego almost half of the $4 million in charitable deductions that he was allowed under the law for 2011.
Clearly, we can’t expect this sort of voluntary contribution to occur very often. Romney initially resisted the idea strongly, going so far as to state, in January, “I pay all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more. I don't think you want someone as the candidate for president who pays more taxes than he owes.”
But this recent disclosure from Romney’s trustee says that Romney decided to forgo the charitable deductions so that his effective tax rate would “conform” with his earlier statements that he always paid at least 13 percent of his income in federal income taxes. CTJ senior counsel Rebecca Wilkins calculated that his effective tax rate would have been around 10.5 percent if he took all the charitable deductions he was allowed for 2011.
So aside from the occasional multi-millionaire who runs for president and wants to avoid answering difficult questions about the policies that allow him to pay so little, can we expect many wealthy Americans to voluntarily pay for public services and public investments?
No. We cannot pay for roads, schools, aircraft carriers and many, many other public goods with voluntary contributions. Even conservative writers for the Economist have skewered the idea, explaining that
A rationally self-interested individual will not voluntarily pay for public goods if she believes others will pay and she can get a free ride. But if we're all rationally self-interested, and we know we're all rationally self-interested, we know everyone else will also try to get a free ride, in which case it is doubly irrational to voluntarily pitch in. Even if you're not inclined to ride for free, why throw good money at an enterprise bound to fail?
In other words, “game theory” suggests that we would not bother to make a voluntary contribution to, say, build a highway, because we know the task will require contributions from many people who are unlikely to make them. As a result, we end up without the new highway, even if the majority of us want it to be built.
That highway can’t be built with the contributions of the occasional public figure who’s embarrassed about his tax loopholes. Not even one with Mitt Romney’s wealth.