Bruce Bartlett

April 15 is like a national holiday for conservatives. It is the one day each year when Americans are forced to think about the cost of government. That is why many conservatives have long thought that tax day should also be Election Day. A review of polling data on taxes by Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute suggests that conservatives would indeed gain from such a move.

Since 1947, the Gallup Poll has regularly asked Americans whether they think their federal taxes are too high, too low or just right. Historically, large majorities say that their taxes are too high. The peak came during the Korean War in 1952, when 71 percent said so, with just 26 percent saying their taxes were OK. The low point came in 1949, just after a Republican Congress rammed a big tax cut through over President Truman's veto. At that time, just 43 percent of Americans thought their taxes were too high, with 53 percent saying that they were about right.

Generally speaking, however, the percentage of those saying that their taxes are too high has been well above 50 percent. At no time has the number of those saying their taxes are too low been above 2 percent, and in most years the percentage has been too low to even measure.

Not surprisingly, the number of Americans saying that their taxes are too high has tended to peak just before big tax cuts or after tax increases, hitting lows -- as now -- just after tax cuts have taken effect. They also tend to view their taxes as higher after April 15 than before. For example, in February 1962, 48 percent of Americans thought their taxes were too high. By June of that year, the figure had jumped to 63 percent. In April 1994, 56 percent of people said their taxes were too high, but by December 66 percent said so. In neither case were there any changes in federal income taxes between the two surveys.

One reason why people view their taxes as excessive is because they think that the vast bulk of it goes for nothing. Polls normally show that about 50 cents of each dollar people pay in taxes is wasted. Just 18 percent of people feel that they get good or excellent value for the taxes they pay, while 34 percent say that they get a poor return on them. This is important because three quarters of people say that how their money is spent bothers them more than the amount of taxes they pay.


Bruce Bartlett

Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.

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