California has experimented with providing automated returns for state taxes. An early pilot version of the program found that those who used it loved it, with 97 percent planning to use it again the next year. It also reduced error rates by nearly 90 percent.
And that—the fear that the government might do a good job of collecting taxes, that people might come to appreciate this, and they might come to view paying taxes as anything other than an onerous burden—explains exactly why we don’t have automatic returns, despite all the benefits. Ideas for automatic returns have been floated, most prominently by Barack Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign and by Senator Elizabeth Warren in 2016. These initiatives are opposed by the tax-preparation industry, of course, which donates to both Democrats and Republicans.
But opposition to automatic tax filing runs deeper among Republicans. As Ronald Reagan once put it, “Taxes should hurt.” He meant that when paying the taxes you owe is a painful process, you are very aware that government is taking your money. Then the governor of California, he was resisting the introduction of state-tax withholding, which, he felt, made it too easy for government to take money and too easy for taxpayers to miss what was happening.
Reagan himself changed his mind over time, and even advocated a version of prefilled tax returns as president. But the Republican Party stuck with his earlier position. After all, those numbers about hours and dollars spent filing taxes come in handy in campaigns against taxes in general.
Read: Why Americans don’t cheat on their taxes
The stance that paying taxes should be painful has metamorphosed into a strange insistence among Republicans that everyone should pay taxes. Mitt Romney famously complained that “47 percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect … I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Rick Perry railed at the “injustice that nearly half of all Americans don’t even pay any income tax.” It’s an odd position for a party that’s been vehemently, and successfully, anti-tax for decades. Indeed, it’s Republican tax cuts that have excluded many people from paying tax.
But it makes its own sense. As Romney realized, after decades of slow but steady cuts, the Republican policy of reducing taxes no longer resonates with most voters. In the early 1970s, about two-thirds of Americans thought their taxes were too high, and they were very receptive to Ronald Reagan’s low-tax message. Decades of tax cuts later, the proportion of Americans saying their taxes are too high is at or near an all-time low. In other words, by acting on their tax-cut promises, Republicans have destroyed the basis for the popularity of their main proposal.
Where does a party go without its signature policy? Perhaps it desperately turns to other issues that can rally the base, such as racism and xenophobia. Perhaps it thrashes around and divides itself trying to figure out its stance on popular spending programs. And perhaps it digs in to its old ways, trying to make sure that paying taxes still hurts.