WE NEED to start taxing political contributions.
The poor already have a voluntary tax, in the form of the lottery. The rich should have one of their own. And one thing that rich people do of their own free will, that poor people don't, is give large amounts of money to political candidates.
Perhaps, in taxing political contributions, we'd be taking advantage of the baser side of human nature; psychologists and religious leaders might say rich people give money to politicians because they want to feel powerful, and that raising money by exploiting this lust for power is immoral.
Psychologists and religious leaders say state lotteries are evil, too, but we have them. And don't forget: The sale of alcohol, tobacco and playing cards all provide tax revenues and have since the early days of America. Why should we exempt people who are addicted to power, rather than to gambling or ingested substances, from our tradition of taxing activities we consider sinful?
So let the do-gooders howl. We need the money this tax will bring in, just as we need the money raised by state lotteries. The question isn't whether we should start making rich people pay taxes for the privilege of trying to buy politicians; the question is how to make such a tax palatable, while collecting it in the fairest manner possible.
The easiest way to levy a tax on political influence is to collect it at the receiving end. Out of a spirit of fairness, we should grant an exemption of $1 per registered voter any politician is trying to reach. This would allow a mayoral candidate in a city with 250,000 registered voters to collect $250,000 before incurring any tax liability. If he or she collects more than $1 per registered voter, let's tax the excess at a rate of 50 percent. If a politician collects more than $2 per voter, tax the additional amount at a rate of 75 percent.
A progressive tax of this nature, aside from raising revenue, would help level the political playing field, by keeping any one candidate from amassing an excessive war chest. And by tying the taxable amount to the number of registered voters in each political domain, we'd give candidates a true incentive to help register new voters, something they don't have today.
To spread this new-found public wealth in an equitable manner, each politician's tax should be collected by the jurisdiction he or she wishes to serve. Mayoral and city council candidates would pay their tax to the municipality in which they are running. Candidates for state office would pay to the state, and those running for federal office would pay their portion to the U.S. treasury. This feature would be especially beneficial to large cities. Businesses headquartered in urban centers, which scream like dying hyenas and threaten to move out of town whenever anyone suggests raising their taxes, hand millions of dollars to political candidates without a whimper of complaint.
And with a stiff tax on political contributions, corporate contributions could come out of the closet. Instead of trying to hide their attempts to buy political power behind PACs with innocuous means like "Citizens for Better Everything," they could come right out and boast about how much money they voluntarily pump into the public coffers. We ordinary citizens, when buying gasoline or insurance, could take this corporate generosity into account and make our buying -- and voting -- decisions accordingly. We can't do this today, because few companies are willing to tell us exactly which politicians they give money to, and why.
There is one potential flaw in this whole plan: If the tax is too high, the rich might stop giving money to politicians, thereby forcing our elected officials to become more responsive to the wishes of average, non-rich citizens. But this is unlikely. Throughout human history, efforts to stop rich people from buying political influence have been no more successful than efforts to stop poor people from gambling.
The two urges are similar. If we tax one, we should tax the other. And besides, a tax on political contributions should raise more money, with less effort, than lotteries played by poor people. A single $1,000-a-plate dinner for a well-financed candidate, attended by 100 wealthy patrons, would raise $75,000 for the common good if it were properly taxed, and all the money could be collected in a lump sum. To raise the same amount through the state lottery, we have to sell almost $150,000 worth of tickets, $1 at a time.
Collecting money from the poor is never as cost-effective as collecting money from the rich. And every wealthy campaign backer I've ever met has railed against waste in government. For this reason alone, I expect the idea of taxing political contributions to be supported wholeheartedly by every self-avowed conservative who ever gave money to a political candidate who promised to make government more efficient.
Robin Miller drives a taxi in Baltimore.