THIS time of year, many of us are inclined to think about taxes in a very personal way. Taxation is, however, much more than a personal challenge; it is a key political issue. How does this issue now cut? A national political leader has nothing to gain from promising to reduce taxes, but he has much to lose from being seen as one who would raise them. Politicians who believe a tax increase is necessary - either to reduce the deficit or expand social programs - have a very hard sell.
The setting for present-day tax politics took form well before the 1980s. According to studies done by the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, families earning close to the national average paid just 11.8 percent of their total income in taxes back in 1953. In 1966, though, this average family saw 17.8 percent of its income go to taxes, and by 1977 its tax bite claimed 22.5 percent of income - virtually double what it had been a quarter-century earlier. For high-income families - defined by the advisory commission as those having incomes at least four times the average - the share paid in taxes rose from 20.2 percent in 1953 to 23.4 percent in 1966, and then more sharply to 31.4 percent in 1977. This basic progression goes far toward explaining the ``tax revolts'' of the 1970s and passage of federal income tax cuts in the 1981 Economic Recovery Tax Act.
Overall levels of taxation have changed little in the 1980s. The commission studies show that total taxes - federal, state, and local - were 32 percent of GNP in 1981, 31.9 percent in 1986. Taxation per capita climbed slightly, measured in dollars of constant 1982 value, from $4,517 in 1981 to $4,850 in 1986, as increases in social security and state taxes more than offset the 1981 income tax reduction.
The public seems reasonably comfortable on the current tax plateau. Most sane people don't greatly enjoy paying taxes, but neither, polls indicate, is any economic stratum really resentful. It was the big increases in tax levels that sparked the protests of the 1970s. And while many might not put it quite so elegantly, they seem basically to agree with an observation Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. made in a 1904 decision, that ``taxes are what we pay for civilized society.'' We want services and protections of all sorts, and we understand they have a price.
The public is adamant, though, that it does not want a return to the pattern of the 1960s and '70s. Large majorities say no to any suggestion of substantial tax increases, in almost every circumstance.
The federal budget deficit discomforts many people. But few will endorse other than modest tax increases in limited areas - on tobacco and alcohol, for example - even with the enticement of deficit reduction. In a Los Angeles Times poll last October, just 29 percent said they favored ``raising taxes in order to make substantial reductions in the budget deficit.'' In November, only 19 percent of those interviewed by Louis Harris backed ``raising the income tax rate'' to achieve a reduction in the federal deficit. Election day polls taken during the March primaries showed tax hikes for deficit reduction almost as unpopular among Democrats as among Republicans.
In fact, the only circumstance the public sees justifying a substantial tax increase is avoiding real cuts in social programs.
American attitudes here are very different from those in other Western democracies. In Britain, for example, the Gallup Organization asked its respondents last July whether they wanted taxes cut even if it meant some reduction in government services, or if they favored keeping things as they were, or if they wanted government services extended ``even if it means some increases in taxes.'' Two-thirds opted for more taxes to get more services. Just 1 in 10 would cut taxes.
So far as I know, the same question hasn't been asked in the United States. Enough similar ones have, though, to let us estimate that the proportion preferring ``more and more'' in the United Kingdom is roughly 30 percentage points higher than it is here.
Benjamin Franklin wrote to an inquiring French friend in 1789 that while he was confident the new US Constitution would endure, ``in this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.'' In 1988, Americans are certainly reconciled to paying their taxes - but not to the idea of rising taxes. Their thoughts on where the candidates stand with regard to the latter are likely to weigh significantly upon the Nov. 8 vote.
Everett Carll Ladd directs the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut.