Apr 15 2013

In Praise of Taxes

(This piece is a reprint from April 15, 2009.)

1040 formI realize that griping about taxes is an ancient tradition. Especially, in America, on or around April 15th.

Today, I want to buck this long-standing tradition.

Today, I want to speak in praise of taxes.

Look. I don’t passionately love paying taxes, either. I’m especially cranky about it this year [2009, when the piece was written], since there was a miscommunication about my withholding and I had to write a big-ass check today. (UPDATE: I’ve been super-especially cranky about it for the last few years, since the way the IRS is dealing with same-sex married couples is beyond stupid.)

highwayBut I drive on the highways that my taxes pay for. I hang out in the parks that my taxes pay for. I go to the libraries that my taxes pay for. I flush my toilet into the sewer pipes that my taxes pay for. When I set fire to my stove that one time, I called the fire department that my taxes paid for.

health inspection certificateAnd there are all the invisible things as well, the things our taxes pay for that we don’t notice until they disappear. There’s the filth that isn’t piling up in the streets, because my taxes are paying for street sweepers. There’s the rat hairs that I’m not eating, because my taxes are paying for health inspectors to see that the restaurants I eat at are clean and safe. There’s the tuberculosis that I don’t have, because my taxes are paying for public health officials to stem the resurgent tide of TB.

I take advantage of the things my taxes pay for. And I’m lucky enough to live in a society that is more or less democratic, where I have something that resembles a voice in how my taxes are spent. If I don’t like the way our taxes are being spent, I can vote out the people who decide how to spend them, and vote in people who’ll spend them the way I want them to.

So how, exactly, is paying taxes tyrannical, or unfair, or the hand of the government picking our pockets?

As I’ve written before: The basic idea of democratic government — what it ought to be, and what much of the time it is — is a society pooling some of its resources to provide itself with structures and services that make that society function smoothly and promote the common good. And it’s the structure a society uses to decide how those pooled resources should be used.

screw you t-shirtTaxes are, quite literally, the pooling of these resources. To oppose paying taxes is to oppose the idea of society itself. It is to oppose the idea of pooling resources. It is to oppose the idea of working together for the common good… and to support, instead, a social philosophy of “Screw you, Jack, I’ve got mine.” You want to live in a world with no functioning government? Move to Somalia.

(Some people want government and taxes, and the services they provide, replaced with private enterprise and volunteerism. My problem with that is: Where’s the accountability? Where’s the process by which I can vote for how I want my fire extinguishing money spent… or can get rid of people who I think are spending it corruptly or stupidly? And besides, I don’t want my fires put out by people who are primarily concerned with making a profit, and are therefore doing cost-benefit analysis about whether my house fire is really worth extinguishing.)

bear from simpsonsReflexive griping about taxes always reminds me of the Simpsons episode, the one where the bear gets into the streets of Springfield and the town goes nuts. They demand an elaborate, 24-hour bear patrol… but when they get their paychecks and see that they’re five dollars less because of the bear patrol tax, they’re outraged.

I think Americans are all too often exactly like that. We want the bear patrol, but we don’t want to pay for it. And all too often, like Mayor Quimby, our elected officials are all too willing to pander to us. Hardly any elected official will ever run for office in the U.S. on a platform of “I’m going to raise taxes, so we can pay for services we all want and need.”

It’s commonly assumed that this state of affairs is the natural order. Human nature. It’s taken as a given that of course nobody wants to pay taxes, that of course political hash will always be made out of griping about them. And in a Springfieldian, bear-patrol way, to some extent it’s true. Of course we would all love for there to be roads and parks, fire departments and sewers, clean streets and plague-free cities… all without anyone having to pay for it. Provided by benevolent elves, perhaps.

But I also think that this is a U.S. phenomenon as much as it is human nature. Look at European countries like, say, France. In France, this reflexive anti-tax sentiment just doesn’t play. I’m sure people gripe about taxes in France, too… but most people there seem to basically get that taxes are the price you pay for living in a society and providing the things that make a society function.

And I would like to start shifting the way Americans think about it, too.

i voted stickerI think that those of us who care about government — who think that government is a salvageable idea and one that works more or less right at least a fair amount of the time, those of who think that as sucky as government often is it sure beats the alternative — need to speak up in praise and defense of taxes. On and around tax day, I’d like to see fewer gripes about the horribleness of taxes, and more commentary and news stories and blog posts and such about why the hell we pay them. On and around tax day, I’d like to see newspapers do a series on “the things your taxes are paying for.” I’d like to see people sporting “I Paid My Taxes” buttons on April 15th, the way we sport “I Voted” stickers on Election Day. I’d like to see April 15th get treated as a patriotic day, the way we treat the Fourth of July and Memorial Day.

We need to remind people — and ourselves — that, at least in a democracy, “paying taxes” basically just means “society working together to make all of our lives better.” It’s socially responsible. It’s patriotic. And it’s no more tyrannical than everyone on the softball team kicking in a few bucks for pizza.

You sometimes see cute little stories in the news, about how on such and such a day of the year, you’re no longer working for the government, and from now on for the rest of the year you’re working for yourself. It’s a story based on the concept that you pay about a fourth to a third of your income in taxes, and if you break that down by year instead of by paycheck, you’ll have paid off your year’s worth of taxes on such and such a day.

But it’s a story that I do not accept.

Because when I’m working to pay taxes, I am still working for myself.

And I’m working for everyone else in the society I live in.


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  1. 1

    I am proud to be paying taxes in the United States. The only thing is – I could be just as proud for half the money.
    ~ Arthur Godfrey

    And he would still be paying more than some big corporations.

  2. 2

    I’m a high school math teacher. When I used to teach taxation (this has since been removed) i used to have students talk about what their taxes paid for. A lot of them where very surprised at how long the list is.

    I think a big problem is lack of education on how taxes are used, and how it makes our lives better. A good (and mandatory) civics course might go a long way.

  3. 3

    “But it’s also the case that your taxes pay for unquestionably vile things. Incontrovertibly evil things. Plainly awful things. If you’re finishing up your taxes today, you should know that the U.S. will spend $14.7 billion of next year’s $25.4 billion drug control budget on government-sponsored violence; which means that your tax dollars—even if it’s just a fraction of a cent—will make possible acts of state-sponsored terror, torture, and murder.”

  4. 4

    My taxes also pay for an obscenely large military that I don’t approve of, a spectacularly inefficient medical system that has enough money to cover our entire population if run like other nations, and numerous other things that I’m not real keen on. I have no particular problem with the amount of taxes I pay (sure feels like a lot, but whatever), but the level of services I receive back for it is rather unimpressive; one would think for my ~$20K in federal and state income tax that I’d be able to have my healthcare covered, but no.

    Basically, I agree in principle, but have some quibbles with the actual spending practices.

  5. 5
    Setár, Elvenkitty

    “But it’s also the case that your taxes pay for unquestionably vile things. Incontrovertibly evil things.

    Yes, Mr. Amazingly Intelligent Libertarian God Of Logic And Knowledge. Thank you for enlightening us with your wisdom, and your equally sage — and implied — wisdom that the only solution is to complain about and abolish taxes, rather than complaining about the actual evil things. Wisdom that is, of course, not any sort of rhetorical trick meant to provide the illusion of bridging the gap between “taxes can go towards evil things” and “taxes are evil”.

    This is why we skeptics absolutely must treat libertarians with deference and give their arguments the time of day. Without them, we would never learn of such evils; it’s not like us skeptics can be expected to watch the news, much less do proper research on government policy, what with our devotion to reality-based thinking and all. We need libertarians, with their evangelistic ideological-sales-pitch method of discussion and just-world way of thinking, for that is the only way to know the True Workings Of The World. Because this is politics, and we need to teach the controversy.

  6. 6

    WTF – I never asked for deference, or claimed to be an amazing libertarian god of knowledge. And where do you get off saying “us skeptics” as if a skeptic couldn’t hold libertarian ideas? Why drag in “teach the controversy” nonsense from creationism?

    My point was similar to Brandon’s (though I admit he was original enough to type his own gripe, instead of just linking to an anti tax rant.) Greta wanted to see news articles touting “the things your taxes are paying for” so I linked to one. The claim that we have something resembling a voice in how our taxes are spent is a bit pollyannaish – try voting down the size of the US military, or any of a number of other entrenched interests.

    The analogy to chipping in for the softball team’s pizza overlooks the fact that the softball team doesn’t throw you in jail or seize your money by force if you don’t want to participate in the pizza party. I don’ want a government that doesn’t function, I want a government that functions efficiently and representatively.

    I’m not griping about the five dollar cost of the “bear patrol,” to use Greta’s analogy. I’m arguing against the necessity or usefulness of such an elaborate patrol – the other joke in that Simpson’s episode was that the bear patrol was a boondoggle, a hysterical overreaction to the bear sighting. The town went “nuts.” If people in my town go “nuts” over a dubious service offered by a private entity, I can just abstain. If they go nuts in favor of a disastrous or evil tax funded policy, I’m forced to go along with that policy unless and until I can win a political battle to have it changed.

    Some things government does better than private enterprise, but you can hold private services accountable by not patronizing them, by withholding your cash, or using a competing service. You can’t do that with a service coercively funded by taxes. Governments are great at insulating themselves from accountability.

  7. 7
    Greta Christina

    christophernicholas @ #3 and #6, and Brandon @ #4L I have no problem with critiquing the specifics of how our taxes are spent. I do it all the time. In fact, that’s a central part of the whole idea of democratic government. Like I said in the piece: Government isn’t just a society pooling some of its resources to provide itself with structures and services that make that society function smoothly and promote the common good. It’s also the structure a society uses to decide how those pooled resources should be used. But there’s a difference between critiquing the specific ways tazes are used, and critiquing the very idea of taxes altogether.

    And christophernicholas @ #6: I’m sorry, but your argument about accountability is absurd. Of course democratic government has accountability. It’s called voting. In fact, there’s more accountability with democratic government than with private enterprise, since without government intervention, private enterprise has a strong tendency towards monopoly, and accountability with a monopoly is pretty much nil. Yes, there are entrenched interests in government — but that’s an argument for better government, and especially better regulation of how entrenched interests affect government, not against government at all.

    And I must say that when you say you “want a government that functions efficiently and representatively.” but then refer to the very idea of taxes as coercive, I don’t really believe you. And if you do reject the basic idea of taxes, I’m not going to get sucked into that argument. I’ve done it before, and it’s always been a waste of time.

    And Setár, genderqueer Elf-Sheriff of Atheism+ @ #5: Please remember that this is not Pharyngula, and dial back on the sarcastic personal insults. Thanks.

  8. 8

    Yeah, I agree about taxes.

    I don’t know how true this is, but I’ve heard it said that one difference between how people see income taxes in different countries is how they’re collected. That here in the UK, many people (possibly the vast majority) only pay income tax on their normal employment salary, which is deducted directly by the employer, and we don’t have to DO anything. It’s different if you’re well-off enough to have investments or consulting jobs, or badly-off enough to work a lot of different jobs at less than full time.

    But it seems in America, it’s a lot more common that at the end of the year, you have to do a lot of paperwork, and discover that a lot of money you thought was yours is owed to the government, or that you’d been constantly overpaying all year. And hence, it feels less like this is just how the world is, but more like someone from the government physically comes round and takes what’s yours.

  9. 9

    Greta @ #7 what happens if you don’t pay your taxes? Paying taxes is not a voluntary activity. It’s something we’re compelled to do, ultimately, by force. If we don’t pay taxes, our property is taken, or we get sent to prison.

    You said “…but that’s an argument for better government, and especially better regulation of how entrenched interests affect government, not against government at all.” But I never argued ‘against government.’ I argued for a more efficient and representative government. And while I’m at it, a more transparent and accountable one. In other words, ‘better.’ You just told me that my argument for a better government was an argument for a better government.

    I’m not opposed to government regulation of industry (or the taxes needed to fund such regulation) but the current government does a poor job of regulating industry, and a great job pandering to it. It also spends a great deal of effort trying to prevent us – for reasons of national security – from even finding out how our taxes are spent (see the current executives record wrt whistleblowers.)

    And Setar @ #5 I’d argue that if an activity is evil, then it’s evil to force someone to fund that activity. Those taxes which are collected to fund evil things are themselves evil. I’m all for fixing the potholes and upgrading the municipal water supply, but that’s not where all of my money’s going.

    So, I don’t feel all rosy about paying taxes. It cuts into the fund I’d use to chip in for my softball team’s pizza party. The money spent on drone strikes and f-35 fighters could be better spent in my community. So I’m going to keep bitching about getting taxed.

  10. 10
    Greta Christina

    the current government does a poor job of regulating industry, and a great job pandering to it. It also spends a great deal of effort trying to prevent us – for reasons of national security – from even finding out how our taxes are spent (see the current executives record wrt whistleblowers.)

    christophernicholas @ #9: And once again, those are arguments against better use of our taxes — not against the very idea of taxation itself. And I don’t understand how you intend to have a government with no taxes to operate it. And you keep saying that you don’t object to taxes… and then objecting to taxes.

    Your arguments are now boring me. I’ve been through them before, and they go nowhere. Your concerns are noted. Thank you for sharing.

  11. 11

    @christophernicholas: who’s requiring you to remain in this country? To borrow the softball analogy: you’re demanding to play on the softball team, to use the bat and balls, to eat the pizza, and then whining that you’re being coerced into paying your couple of bucks into the fund. No one’s stopping you from joining someone else’s softball team (there are hundreds), or even forming one of your own. But if you want to play on this team, you agree to pay into this team’s pizza fund.

  12. 12

    Thank you, Greta. This message could do with being blazoned across media and taught in schools. I’m sure that most of us, like the students canadiansteve mentioned, have little idea quite how much we rely on the infrastructure and services that taxes pay for.
    And yes, all our governments also use too much of that money to pay for things we don’t want them to. But at least we have some mechanism, imperfect though it is, for affecting that; we have no way of influencing a local or national monopoly.
    If I could change the socioeconomic structure of my country to be more like the high-provision, high-contribution Scandinavian model – or to be more like the low-contribution model, the privatise-everything-that’s-not-nailed-down model, the run-the-public-sector-into-the-ground model seen in some other parts of the world … I’d go the Scandinavian route every time. I’d rather pay more, and know that I and my loved ones and everyone else gets to enjoy greater social stability, a decent welfare system, world-beating public education and the security of knowing we can see a doctor without fear of mortgaging our lives.

  13. 13

    @11 To extend the team analogy, one of the things that makes this team superior is that supposedly I can voice my dislike for the kind of pizza I’m chipping in for, or even question the necessity of a pizza fund – we are a softball team, we play softball, why is it necessary to eat pizza together to fulfill our function as a softball team? It might be nice to eat pizza together, but is pizza eating really a core function of being on a softball team? Maybe I should be allowed to chip in for essential things – uniforms, bats, whatever – and show up for practices, but make my own decision about what to eat and with whom to eat it. Or at the very least, I have a right to suggest to other team members that maybe it would be better to do things differently, without being summarily kicked off the team or told that I have to shut up and be happy about the way things are (“eat anchovies, or split!”) That voice, wrt taxes? It’s complaint. It’s protest.

    Strained analogy, but the point is that sometimes governments do stupid or inappropriate things that may not be part of their core mission, may be unnecessary, or that they may not do well – like Springfield’s bear patrol – or that may in fact be repugnant to the taxpayer funding them. Maybe it’s possible, sometimes, that some of the money taken from individuals by their government would do more for the “common good” if the government didn’t confiscate it, but rather let the people who earned it circulate it in their communities. It’s ok to have a discussion about what role government should play in it’s citizens’ lives and what it should – and should not – do for, or to, us. Since whatever the government does, it ultimately backs up with force, maybe there should be a limit on what the government is allowed to do – even with the approval of a majority of it’s citizens.

    Greta says she has no qualms about protesting the way taxes are spent, but if there’s really room to protest who gets taxed, how much, and for what, there needs to be room for dissatisfaction with being taxed. There needs to be room to complain. Greta wrote a piece in praise of taxes. Fine, but why don’t I get to stay in the country if I dare to write a reply critical of taxes and taxation? If one person can point out the great benefits of infrastructure, public education, and vaccination programs, why is it inappropriate to point out a downside to taxation?

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