(This piece is a reprint from April 15, 2009.)
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.)
But 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.
And 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.
Taxes 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.)
Reflexive 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 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.