The “do-it-yourself” movement is one of the most striking developments of the postwar years. People undertake all manner of repair jobs; decorate and remodel their homes; build furniture, garages, boats, and toys. They equip workshops and studios; acquire working knowledges of painting, paper hanging, carpentry, plumbing and electricity. Across the countryside one can even see people building their own houses from the foundation. The five-day week, more paid holidays and vacations, and compensated unemployment give extra time for home projects . . . .

The postwar decade has been a period of over-full employment, booming construction, and rising wages. Building, plumbing, electrical, and painting contractors not unnaturally favor the bigger projects. Industry has tempted the odd-jobs handyman into regular employment. While anything mass-produced is comparatively cheap, custom-made products are impossibly dear. A person often is forced to handle his own maintenance and repair job because no one else can be found to do it, at least within any sensible cost. When a skilled surgeon, dentist, or diemaker is compelled to take time off to fix a leaking pipe or glaze a broken window, there is waste of human resources. Over-full employment undermines the efficiency of the economy.

This uneconomic application of labor is accelerated by the income tax. The marginal dollar the surgeon, dentist, or diemaker earns in his regular work has to be shared with Uncle Sam. It shrinks to seventy, sixty, fifty cents, or even less. The greater the skill, the higher the tax. There is no tax on what you do for yourself.

Do-it-yourself projects give benefits free of income tax. And there is no tax on the time devoted to filling out the income tax return and studying ways and means of easing the tax burden. “Taxmanship” is the generic name that has been given to the art of finding items that do not have to be shared with Uncle Sam or that can be subtracted from otherwise taxable income in order to reduce the tax due or qualify for a refund of tax withheld. The income tax return engages all the wits and money-saving instincts of millions of do-it-yourself fans.

The Internal Revenue Service has urged people to work out their returns for themselves, to spare the burdens on the revenue agents. Internal Revenue Commissioner Russell C. Harrington gives assurance that the return is not complicated: “A high school kid should be able to fill out the average return if he knows arithmetic.”

With do-it-yourself projects, outward simplicity is often deceptive. The real do-it-yourself fan ignores the simplicities of the law so as to give undivided attention to the complexities. The biggest-selling of all how-to-do-it books are the popularized guides to income tax savings . . . .

The taxmanship movement has a simple foundation. Congress has been remiss in getting tax rates down to tolerable levels. So the enterprising citizen is driven to do it himself.

Gratifying as it is to observe still another manifestation of the resourcefulness of the American people, there are some less satisfactory aspects of the movement. The income tax rates set the rewards for evasion so high that the basic honesty of the people is sorely tested. Mr. T. Coleman Andrews, Mr. Harrington’s predecessor as Internal Revenue Commissioner, said on a radio program a month ago that the present progression of personal income tax rates is “the greatest potential that anyone has ever thought of for making out of us a nation of liars and cheats.”

It would be well for the Congress to give heed to trends that undermine the moral base of our civilization. []

From the Monthly Letter, March 1956, The First National City Bank of New York.