How quaint. Back then, federal tax law ran less than 500 pages. Now it’s more than 70,000.
So why is the tax code so complex? One of the biggest reasons given by this 1920 article was limiting follow-ups on the part of tax collectors:
A chief decision, in the policy that was developed, was to reduce correspondence to as low a point as possible, both for the convenience of the taxpayer and the government, because even a small exchange of letters with 4,000,000 persons would mean an immense item. This is a reason given for putting the great number of questions on the income tax blanks. The aim was to bring out the material for a complete audit, without the necessity of follow the receipt of the return from the taxpayer with letters for more information. The friends of Daniel C. Roper, Collector of Internal Revenue, say that only his genius for organization enabled him to mold a machine that could take on and carry such a huge load.
So what to do? One of the most important writers of the 1913 tax law, Rep. Cordell Hull (D-TN4), suggested that objections about complexity would largely dissipate on their own, as people became more familiar with the process each year:
“I think also that the number of complaints will be reduced as the taxpayers become more accustomed to making out the blanks. If each one read the instructions first, carefully, there would not be much difficulty now. A man starts in without having posted himself in advance, makes mistakes, and has to go back. As to difficulties that can be removed, Congress will be enabled to legislate more accurately as soon as it gets the technical facts.”
That prediction was not to be.
Simplify the Income Tax? — Perhaps, But Not Soon: Washington Buzzes With Official Reasons for the Complicated Blanks, and One Congressional Reformer Actually Predicts a Method Which Taxpayers Can Understand
Published: Sunday, March 7, 1920