For the last several decades, a few days immediately before and on April 15 itself, our country has experienced an annual ritual as taxpayers nationwide form long lines at their local post offices to file their income tax returns. Akin to military service, undoubtedly few relish this obligation but recognize it as their civic obligation worthy of fulfillment. In a fascinating new book, Learning to Love Form 1040, published by the University of Chicago Press, Duke University School of Law professor Lawrence Zelenak details the origins of this obligation, traces its history, and explores how it has fostered what he terms fiscal citizenship, or “the important civic purpose of recognizing and formalizing the financial responsibilities of citizenship.”
Throughout this book, Zelenak champions what he considers the principal virtue of Form 1040, namely, its ability to penetrate each taxpayer’s consciousness and to strengthen the bonds of fiscal citizenship. Taxpayers or their advisers must populate the lines of Form 1040 and examine its accuracy. Once taxpayers’ tax returns are complete, they must then draw the conclusion that such tax returns are worthy of submission and the quid pro quo that they receive—that is, to borrow phraseology from Justice Holmes, “civilized society”—is worth the price. Use of a return-based method to collect tax is in contradistinction to other tax revenue collection methods, such as a national sales tax or an exact withholding system, which engender little or no conscious connection between the process of tax collection and government expenditures.
Notwithstanding Zelenak’s central premise that the tax return preparation process weaves taxpayers into the fabric of civilized society, technological advancements have fundamentally transformed the Form 1040 preparation landscape. These transformations have both advantages and disadvantages with respect to cultivating fiscal citizenship. On the one hand, software preparation programs and the proliferation of tax information returns have greatly facilitated the tax return preparation process; on the other hand, these very same technological advancements have enabled Congress to fill the Internal Revenue Code with a myriad of tax expenditures, the alternative minimum tax, and various deduction phaseouts, making it virtually impossible for ordinary taxpayers to comprehend the increasingly opaque nature of their tax burdens.