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In praise of a flat tax (sort of)

The also-ran presidential candidate Fred Thompson has proposed a voluntary flat tax. Back when another candidate, some guy associated with a magazine that competes against Fortune, advocated a flat tax, I always thought it was a kooky idea. Now, after doing a modicum of reporting on tax policy, I’m not so sure the idea is so crazy.

To be clear, it’ll never happen. At least not by Fred Thompson, not in our lifetimes and not in this country. We can’t even support immigration or social security reform, issues that ought to have bipartisan support. We certainly can’t amicably trash the entire tax code — even if it deserves to be trashed.

So why am I praising, if faintly, a flat tax? For the simple reason that a flat tax would throw oodles of sneaky tax attorneys, accountants and other deadbeat schemers out of work. Earlier in the year, when I was writing about attempts to change the way private-equity funds are taxed, I spent hours on the phone and in meetings with tax lawyers. It becomes fairly clear fairly quickly that if these bright and energetic people somehow could find employment that actually made a contribution to the national good we’d be a much better place overall. As it is, they are just bottom-feeders, pushing up the cost of doing business, hopelessly confusing matters and making it easier for the those with the most resources to minimize their tax bills. I wonder just how many tens or hundreds of thousands of Americans spend their working hours trying to help indviduals and companies cheat the U.S. government out of its tax revenues. Does anyone know?

Don’t look to Thompson for answers. Congress has estimated that a plan similar to his would cost the Treasury at least $2.5 trillion over 10 years, according to a report Monday in the New York Times.

I have no idea if a well designed flat tax could succeed in balancing the budget. But it sure would be fun to watch.