I hate “flexible” spending accounts, i.e. those accounts where you put say $1000 in tax-free but you then must submit a bunch of health or education receipts to claim the money–and the “benefits manager” tells you half of the receipts you submitted are no good so you have to trawl through your files to find more–or lose the money. The whole process is demeaning. My hatred of this process, however, pales in comparison to that of Scott Sumner who gives a correct analogy:
Imagine a government that took 10% of each person’s income, and put in in a wooden box. The box was placed at the end of a 10-mile gravel road. Each citizen was given a knife, and told they could crawl on their hands and knees down the road, and then use the knife to cut a hole in the box, and retrieve their money.
Scott’s point is twofold. First, there is a lot of waste in crawling down the road. Second, taken in isolation, it looks like the plan at least offers people an option and so, in isolation, flex accounts and their ilk appear to benefit taxpayers. In the big picture, however, the total amount taken in taxes is somewhat fixed by politics and economics so if we got rid of the spending accounts, taxes would probably fall in other ways that are difficult to predict but nonetheless real.
Some want to crawl down the gravel road, fearing that if they abolish the program the government will not reduce their tax rates, instead the money in the box will be diverted to welfare for the poor, or higher salaries for teachers. I can’t deny that this might occur, but if we don’t even TRY to build a good country, how can we possibly succeed? Isn’t it better to try and fail, rather than not even try?
I agree with Scott. If I am going to be forced to pay taxes I’d like to hand over my cash standing like a man and not be given the option of crawling to recoup some bills the tax collector magnanimously throws on the floor.