New York State of Mind: Should We Tax Our Volunteers?
I recently completed two weeks of volunteer work in New York in response to a public call from Governor Cuomo for health-care workers. You can read about my experience here.
Today I received a phone call. Then a text. Then a message. Friends of mine were alerting me to a news item indicating that the governor of New York, Governor Cuomo has said today that health-care workers should be taxed for their volunteer time in New York.
You read that correctly.
I know because another friend made me repeat it. I told him, “I just read that Governor Cuomo wants to tax health-care workers that volunteered in New York during the Coronavirus pandemic.” My friend responded, “You’re going to have to say it again. You’re not making any sense.”
He was correct, but I would like to clarify: the not-sense-making was not by me. The Governor wishes to tax volunteers, and the argument appears to be this: volunteer workers are paid while in New York and so they should be accountable for an income tax to the state. There are of course some logic problems here, which I will move through quickly because, in all honesty, I would rather talk about something else. So, briefly, here they are:
1. It is true that I was paid while in New York, but I was not paid to be in New York.
2. It is true that I was paid while in New York, but I was not paid by New York.
3. It is true that I was paid while in New York, but I was not paid to serve New York.
Literally thousands of individuals who could, took a break from their job to help. I took my own vacation time to serve in NY where I could. Should I be taxed for this?
I am no victim here and to be fair, nothing has happened yet. The Governor has merely reported his wishes. But just for fiscal fun, let us for the moment presume that I got the message incorrect. Let us presume that this site and this site and this site are incorrectly or incompletely reporting the wishes of the Governor.
Let us suspend everything so I can ask you this: If you volunteered your service, how would you feel about being taxed for it? Further, having not yet volunteered and you learned that you were going to be taxed, would you still volunteer?
My guess is probably not. What you would probably conclude is that there are enough volunteers, or there is no longer a need, or they are trying to deter you to come. Being forced to pay a fine would predictably zap the zeal out of charitable effort. And this is what I would rather talk about: the consequence of taxation. Certainly there is an arithmetic consequence to taxation—the more workers that are taxed, the more revenue. It makes perfect mathematical sense.
But if volunteers are already paying for their own travel, their own accommodations, or (ahem) spending their own vacation time, would taxing increase the likelihood of consistent, unbroken, or future volunteerism, or do you think it would decrease it?
I think we agree it would not incentivize. You see there is another side and that being that taxing tends to damper. It dampers motivation. It dampers effort. It dampers drive.
So here is our expertly advanced, time-tested rule: We tax things we want less of. What motivation would you have to volunteer if you were being taxed? It would probably not be a long-lasting issue, as you would not volunteer. Now let us make that argument for…well…literally anything else. Would you be inclined to stay in an area if you were taxed more? Would you be inclined to work harder if your taxes kept going up? Would you show more initiative or creativity if you were taxed for it? Actually, the reverse is true: the reduction of taxes (or the complete absence or elimination of them) is what provides freedom to encourage, motivate, and inspire.
Some taxation is necessary. I get it. After all, we need paved roads and a strong military. Necessary as it may be, still, the arithmetic outcome of taxing often works in producing the opposite of the desired outcome of taxing. And yet, here we are—discussion of a tax on volunteers that would not fix poor fiscal spending practices, would not boost creativity, but would, however, incentivize volunteers…but only to incentivize them to rethink their volunteerism in the first place.
Rick Laib is the Republican candidate for the 11th Congressional District in Illinois. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org