David Boaz articulates a common libertarian pet peeve:
In an article about the wave of conservative reform under Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, the New York Times writes:
Meanwhile the House is considering an income tax cut that would cost the state $300 million.
Another way to say that would be:
Meanwhile the House is considering an income tax cut that would save the taxpayers $300 million.
It all depends on whether you identify with the taxpayers or the tax consumers.
Here’s the thing: There are contexts in which I think it’s perfectly reasonable to use the language of “costs” or “tax expenditures” to describe tax cuts. For fiscal purposes, a narrowly tailored tax exemption or credit is functionally equivalent to a direct subsidy. If (if!) you suppose spending is an independent variable, giving a back a few million for companies that paint their walls puce or what have you just leaves a hole in the budget that has to be made up elsewhere—which is to say, it has to come out of the pockets of other taxpayers, either now or in the future. In these cases, it’s probably better to use the rhetoric of “cost,” because we don’t want narrow interest groups to be able to disguise a subsidy as a tax cut in order to win conservative support
The problem is, this is probably not the right way to think about broad-based income tax reductions. Whether we want to think of any given tax reduction as a saving for taxpayers or a cost to the government will generally depend on the details. The problem is, the fact that it’s reasonable and legitimate to use the “tax expenditure” framing in some circumstances tends to license the indiscriminate use of that frame.