Voluntary Taxes

In my “New Democracy” topic I am interested in ideas about how technology can change democracy and governance. In California, a rule was passed (curiously needing only a 50% majority) that any ballot propositions that wanted to raise new taxes for specific projects needed a 2/3rds majority to come into effect. I’m in agreement with that. My libertarian bent knows the dangers of letting 51% of the people decide to spend the money of 100% of the people on the flavour-of-the-month.

In this county, a proposition that needs 66% asks for a $29 levy on all properties to pay for medical programs for children. How could anybody vote against that? (I have not examined this proposition in detail, but generally when you see “motherhood” propositions on the ballot, particularly bonds, they have been put there by politicians who have other projects they know would not be popular. So they arrange a ballot proposition to raise money for something nobody could be against, which normally they would have had to spend general revenue on, and this frees up general revenue so they can spend it with less accountability.)

But I digress. And I’m not trying to comment on this particular issue or wishing to come out against medicine for children. But in looking at this proposal, it was clear to me that if 2/3rds of voters wanted it, then you would get the same amount of money if 2/3rds of voters just paid $43.50 (50% more) out of their pockets! No need for a vote (which probably costs quite a bit of money) or asking those who don’t agree to pay. In fact, since property owners are probably just a small fraction of the voting population, it might require less than $29 per eligible voter (though not, alas, per ballot casting voter.) With a small amount like this, is there a different way we could do things?

Imagine a contribution system where some sort of publicly funded project could be proposed, with an amount and time period. Each person could register their agreement to pay any amount, including the suggested one, but also less or more. Agreements by registered voters would count as a vote for the plan in addition to being a pledge to pay. (You will see why later.)

(Update: This was written back when Kickstarter and similar companies had just gotten started, you will see similarities to it, and my earlier proposal for congressional voting from 2006.)

The total amount pledged, and the general distribution of it, would be public. People would see if the measure was close to getting its funding target. If it does not reach the target, nobody has to pay. If it reaches the target by a deadline, everybody has to pay what they committed — in fact it is just added to their tax bill. (This works only with property tax and income tax, not with sales taxes.)

If the measure got support at any level from 50% of voters, that would not make others pay, but rather it would require immigrants to the area to take up an appropriate payment (either the basic one proposed, or a perhaps a median payment.) This would assure that as payers left the area, revenue would not drop because newcomers would take up the slack. Unlike people who voted against it, the immigrants are not being asked to pay for something they didn’t approve of or know about.

Of course the problem — or some would say feature — is that today only a fraction of eligible voters register, and a fairly small fraction of those vote in off-year elections. So while a ballot proposition might pass with 1/2 the voters, that might be 1/4 or less of the actual eligible voters. That would make it hard to raise the money.

On the other hand, making the amount visible might spur people to action. In particular, while most taxes raised in propositions are flat (ie. not progressive) it’s quite possible that richer people might gladly offer to pledge more for causes they care about (like immunizations for children.) Possibly much more. In fact, non-voters and people from outside the region could and perhaps would pledge, and would be allowed to if there were ways to easily enforce the pledges — of which escrow systems are only one.

The pledging might go on for a long time if necessary, until it hits the target, though we would want some limit on things. During a shorter term pledge period, the rule would be that you could not reduce your pledge but you could always increase it. So if you saw the campaign was close to the target, efforts to “get out the dollars” might get you to boost your pledge to send it over the top.

In this way people, even outsiders, might see it as a way to leverage their money. They would pledge a lot because it would trigger the pledges of many smaller contributors. One could even imagine the very wealthy seeing that something they want needs $5 million but has $3 million in pledges. They might decide that putting in $2 million to get a $5 million benefit could be well worth it.

While generally we want a secret ballot, I think those who pledge much more than the requested amount or median pledge could get proof of that, to help in campaigns. Ie. no proof of vote if you just pledge the normal amount, but you get one if you do 10x that.

Now for certain types of funds, people would be quite bothered if they are paying and others who also benefit are not. They like ordinary votes which force everybody to pay, or at least everybody but poor people. But this could also be combined with the old system, but to make it more fair. It might be that if the proposal passes with 2/3 approval, the other 1/3 would be commited to a base amount that is less than what would have been demanded if everybody paid the same. So in the example of the $29 tax, it might be that 2/3 put in $40 on average, and so the other 1/3 who voted against need only put in $7, which is fairer and leads to less abuse than having the majority always able to tax the minority.

I see a bunch of ways this would go wrong, but again my goal is to throw out ideas for new democracy in the computer age, and see where they might lead.


I think your effort would be better spent convincing people of the advantages of proportional representation.

You will find

Lots of commentary in that direction in the earlier posts (many years ago) of the New Democracy topic!

I dislike taxes, but...

I really don't like most taxes, but I like this idea. You might want to suggest this to Arkansas and any other states that have a "Tax Me More Fund" feeding into general revenue. I've heard that most of those funds aren't getting significant amounts of money, but I think that if people could earmark their donations like you suggest, they'd be more interested.

The secret ballot is a very good idea.

My main problem with this plan is that it necessarily ties someone's name to how they voted.

This is a bad idea because it's too big a temptation: Someone, probably sooner rather than later, will have a combination of the right access and the wrong attitude and make someone's life very difficult due to how (or whether) that person voted.

This isn't even a security issue; it's entirely to do with the fact sometimes, petty and vindictive people come into positions of power that they then proceed to abuse shamelessly. A security policy cannot prevent immoral people from gaining legitimate access to sensitive information and using that information irresponsibly.

The secrecy

I agree, though if it’s a voluntary payment it is not quite the same as a vote. We don’t demand that all donations to charity be secret. When you move to the voting parts of the system I describe — ie. making things binding on other people or on immigrants — you have a point.

I had thought that perhaps the information could remain with the tax authority but upon further thought there is no way to do that. I could show you my tax bill to prove I voted for the measure.

To keep it secret, it might require secret escrow accounts or some sort of repudiability.


In California, a rule was passed (curiously needing only a 50% majority) that any ballot propositions that wanted to raise new taxes for specific projects needed a 2/3rds majority to come into effect. I’m in agreement with that

This rule is presently destroying the state, thanks to bad-faith efforts by the minority of the legislature. They'll allow tax loopholes for yachts, but they won't fund basic education (I realize an uneducated underclass is considered a desirable feature of the libertarian ideology -- f*cking those less fortunate than yourself has always been the libertarian bent -- so you probably don't care.) CA can't pass a budget. And exactly what roads do you think robot cars will run on if we can't afford to build any?

So who do you blame for this

I must say I blame the legislature. They are elected (by just 50%+ of the voters in each district) and they are charged with setting taxes and deciding what to spend it on. If they refuse to spend it on the things important to you or a large enough number of voters, we’re supposed to vote them out. Having the public also spend money itself doesn’t help. The public gets propositions to vote on motherhood issues, to free up money for the corrupt politicians to spend on less popular things. They would just do even more of this.

The answer is to take other steps (which I have outlined in other threads) to help reduce corruption in politics. No matter what political bent you follow.

"Imagine a contribution

"Imagine a contribution system where some sort of publicly funded project could be proposed, with an amount and time period. Each person could register their agreement to pay any amount, including the suggested one, but also less or more. Agreements by registered voters would count as a vote for the plan in addition to being a pledge to pay. "

...but isn't this exactly what the proposition system DOES? Other than the "donation" bit, of course.

It sounds like what you're *really* asking is, "why are my tax receipts going to fund things that I don't personally agree with?" Which is an entirely orthodox Libertarian position. So this blog post could just be replaced by a link to www.lp.org

Not quite

It’s a little bit more than LP policy, because the government is getting involved in providing a mechanism to decide where people want to allocate their money, and a means of collection and enforcement (the tax bill) and in addition the means to sustain the money when people leave the area buy having immigrants to the area take up the payment.

The key question here is that since people expect the government to pay for certain things and don’t come together to fund them voluntarily, even though they express support for them, is there a somewhat statist way to turn that expression of support into real support — while indeed working towards the libertarian goal of reducing mandatory taxes.

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