Harry Reid Confused by “Voluntary” Tax

by Sean Hackbarth

Harry Reid

The saying goes: “Only two things are certain: death and taxes.” With April 15 upon us in a few weeks it’s hard to believe paying taxes is voluntary. Yet, that’s what Sen. Harry Reid tried to tell Jan Helfeld.

Reid is confused by what he means by “voluntary.” Paying income taxes isn’t voluntary. If we earn income we have to pay tax. Now, the U.S. system has what’s called “voluntary compliance.” Prof. Jonathan Siegel describes it:

So what does the IRS mean when it says it relies on “voluntary compliance”? It is referring to the primary method by which it enforces the (mandatory) duty to pay taxes. The IRS recognizes that this is a huge country and there are hundreds of millions of people who have a duty to pay taxes. The IRS can’t follow each of us around personally and force us to pay. The system can function only if most people voluntarily comply with their duty to pay. If everyone in the country simultaneously stopped complying with the tax laws, the IRS would be helpless. It doesn’t have the resources to bring 200 million tax prosecutions. So the primary method of tax enforcement used in this country is the fact that most people voluntarily go ahead and comply with their mandatory duty to pay their taxes.

But make no mistake about it: the duty to pay is mandatory. If the primary method of enforcement of that duty (voluntary compliance) fails for a particular person, the government hauls out the secondary method of enforcement: a tax prosecution. It can go after the nonpayer in a civil action, or seize assets of the nonpayer, or bring a criminal case that can land the nonpayer in prison.

“Is Taxation Voluntary?” [via Betsy's Page]

[picture via swaters]

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10 Responses to “Harry Reid Confused by “Voluntary” Tax”


Reid is not confused on these points. He made exactly the distinctions you quote above, in his original statement.

He did not use the term “voluntary compliance” – he simply said “the system” is voluntary – but he explained the point clearly and accurately. He said explicitly that it is not voluntary to pay taxes, but that the method of collection – through individually-prepared tax returns and tax payments – is voluntary, which is exactly what is meant by that term in tax-policy usage. Those are the same points made in the quote you give, so I hardly see in what way you think he was wrong.

If your complaint is that he did not work the word “compliance” into it, that seems like you’re stretching pretty hard to find something to object to. It’s obvious he knows perfectly well how the system works – he described it accurately, and the only confusion evident on the video was that of the questioner.


Kevin, Reid talked in wonkeese. When most people think something is voluntary they have an option. That’s not the case and he failed to communicate that.


Did you really think Reid was claiming that paying taxes was optional? Did you believe he was somehow trying to hoodwink people into thinking that? You must be awfully easily confused if you’re that willing to believe claims that (a) everybody knows are not true, and (b) the speaker wasn’t making.

Reid was replying to the questioner’s tax-loon whining about “coercive” confiscation of taxes by pointing out that the US tax system is actually among the least coercive in the world. He is right about that, and he was right in his description of how the US system works, and he used the correct and accepted terminology in so describing it. The rest is your problem.


Thank you for your interest and promotion of my Harry Reid interview. If you liked that one, wait until you see my interview with Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Gov. Bill Richardson, Congressman Pete Stark, former CIA Director James Woolsey, ABC News George Stephanopoulos, Sen. Joe Biden and many others at JanHelfeld.com or You tube/Jan Helfeld. Please review them and let me and others know what you think.


His error was in not responding to the question. Getting off track into a “phraseology” discussion took the interview off on a whole new tangent. That’s the problem. Pick up something in the question you don’t like and you don’t have to answer the question. Majority Leader in the Senate and he can’t make his point clearly without each of us interpreting in our own way. “Tax-loon whining”? I didn’t see that at all. Just answer the question Mr. Reid.


[...] I believe the good senator was referring to “voluntary compliance” which is really not voluntary. “Dear citizen, will you please volunteer to pay your taxes so we will not have to throw you in jail? Thanks a million.” But as you can see from the video Reid inexplicably takes issue with the “phraseology” used by the interviewer. The interviewer uses the word “forced” to describe how the government collects income taxes. Reid employs a nice little two-step to dance around the issue and attempt (for reasons yet unknown) to explain how the income earners are not really forced by law to pay income taxes. [...]


“So what does the IRS mean when it says it relies on ‘voluntary compliance’? It is referring to the primary method by which it enforces the (mandatory) duty to pay taxes.” Not murdering is voluntary, too. If every citizen in the United States decided to murder someone, there would not be enough cops or courts out there to handle the situation. Therefore compliance with any man-made law is voluntary. As to paying taxes, this is voluntary only if you are a Democrat congressman or in the current Democratic administration.


Kevin: How is the collection system voluntary? You are required to file your taxes. You’re going out of your way to make a semantic argument to justify Mr. Reid’s words. Paying taxes isn’t voluntary but taking the actual steps to pay it IS voluntary? Just listen to yourself.


I’ve been included in taxations for longer then I care to admit, both on the private side (all my working life story!!) and from a legal viewpoint since passing the bar and following tax law. I’ve furnished a lot of advice and rectified a lot of wrongs, and I must say that what you’ve put up makes complete sense. Please carry on the good work – the more individuals know the better they’ll be equipped to cope with the tax man, and that’s what it’s all about.


It is voluntary, that is if you make under a certain amount of income each year. If it is low enough you don’t even have to file :)

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