But when did we ‘consent’ to the income tax?

The Treasury Department on Jan. 3 updated 1974 regulations — issued before the age of electronic filing — that require “tax professionals” to get informed consent from their clients before disclosing tax information to third parties or using it for non-return purposes.

The IRS also announced it was considering a ban on tax preparers using information for the purpose of selling products such as Refund Anticipation Loans, under which taxpayers receive “instant refunds” but can be hit with high interest rates.

(If they’re presumed too dumb to check the interest rate on a “refund” loan, one wonders how on earth the government can hold them competent to understand the thousands of intiricate and self-conradicting pages of the Internal Revenue Code, which should thus be ruled “void for incomprehensibility,” don’t you think?)

Consumer groups took issue with these rules when they came out in draft form in 2006, complaining they could actually open the way for preparers to sell information to unrelated marketers, exposing consumers to identify theft.

The IRS responds there’s no change in the basic principle that taxpayers, not the government, should control their own tax information. Sharing the information can’t be banned outright, they argue, since there are some cases in which taxpayers may want preparers to share data, as when they apply for a mortgage.

The new rules — which go into effect in January, 2009 — also stipulate that consent forms must identify the intended purpose of disclosure and the recipients; Taxpayers must be informed that they are not required to sign consents; Consent documents must be in easy-to-read 12-point type; Preparers must not repeat consent requests once taxpayers decline to give their consent, and that when tax preparation is done offshore, Social Security numbers must be redacted.

The changes are OK as far as they go. But they’re a bit like reforming the way we deal with the waste products of the flatulent elephant living in the corner of the dining room, without asking why there’s a flatulent elephant living in the corner of the dining room in the first place.

The main group of peeping Toms who government auditors have found improperly rummaging through Americans’ confidential tax forms to extract juicy bits of private gossip are not private tax preparers — who the taxpayer at least gets to choose, or choose to do without — but rather IRS employees themselves, over whose access to this data the poor taxpayer has no control whatsoever.

The best solution — especially if the government contends “Taxpayers, not the government, should control their own tax information” — would be to stop encouraging or requiring Americans to submit so much private information, in the first place.

The Constitution says there may be only two kinds of federal taxes: indirect excises, and direct taxes apportioned among the states and capitated — that is to say, charged at a flat rate to each taxpayer.

The language of the Sixteenth Amendment — though it confirms the power to levy taxes on incomes and makes it clear they don’t have to be direct and capitated — fails to repeal that wise restriction. Yet the IRS has never been willing to say whether the personal income tax is a direct tax — in which case the amount of money needed each year would be divided into bills sent to the states and every taxpayer would have to remit an equal share — or whether it’s an indirect excise, in which case employers might be made responsible to withhold and submit payments (as tire and gasoline dealers now are), but no individual American would be responsible for filing a “return” containing any personal data — since that’s what “indirect” means.

The term “tax preparer” itself was largely unknown before World War II. It’s an employment category entirely drummed up by the absurd complexity of the current tax code. If the “1040” tax form were simplified into a postcard on which the taxpayer merely multiplied his or her income by a specified percentage — no deductions, no loopholes — the millions of productive hours currently wasted on “tax preparation” would vanish, and we could all get back to doing something more productive.

Well, everyone except the “tax preparers,” of course. They would presumably have to find employment doing something other than annually re-attaching the government bells and collars around the necks of the remainder of the bleating flock.

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