In Praise of Taxes

1040 form
I realize that griping about taxes is an ancient tradition. Especially, in America, on or around April 15th. It’s an ancient tradition that, this year, has been formalized in the easily and endlessly mockable “teabagging” protests.

No, I’m not going to make cheap jokes about teabagging. Every single cheap joke that could be possibly be made about teabagging has been made on MSNBC in the last few days.

Today, instead, 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, since there was a miscommunication about my withholding and I had to write a big-ass check today.)

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.

Inspection sign
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 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 filth that isn’t piling up in the streets, because my taxes are paying for street sweepers. 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 shirt
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.)

Simpsons Bear
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 short 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
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 news outlets 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.

In Praise of Taxes

23 thoughts on “In Praise of Taxes

  1. 1

    Right on Greta!
    I don’t know who said it, but “Taxes are the price we pay for Civilization.” is one of my favorite quotes.
    Be prepared however, for the libertarians who populate the Atheosphere, to tut tut in you direction.

  2. 2

    You know what pisses me off worse than taxes? The self-service weighing-and-stamping machine in the post office. Its programming is downright stupid: instead of accumulating the cost of all the purchases and having you pay at the end, you have to pay after each item. This has amusing consequences when your cost-per-item is just under the $1 minimum charge.
    And with the long latency each time the machine has to commune with the spirits of the credit-card network (it doesn’t take cash), the time per person is significantly prolonged, so the queue moves slowwwwly, and the closer you get to the front, the more you’re thinking that the person at the machine is an incompetent moron, and when you get there yourself you discover that you’re just as bad. . .
    Somehow, though, life goes on.
    Actually, assuming I didn’t botch the figures somehow, the People’s Republic of Massachusetts owes me $44 dollars this year. I feel like I just won a beauty contest in Monopoly-world!

  3. 3

    You contrast tax supported with private for profit run services, but there is a third way. I am Hon Sec of a fundraising branch of the RNLI. In Britain we fund our lifeboats charitably and have a service manned by volunteer crews. We are fanatical about the quality of our service and have our boats built and equipped to the highest standards and our crews trained and supported in the best ways we can. I have observed both tax funded and privately (for profit) funded organisations minimising standards in an attempt to reduce costs and get “value for money” I believe voluntary charitable organisations such as the RNLI can focus upon and deliver the highest quality of service. That being said however I agree with the thrust of your argument that tax in a modern democratic country is largely a good thing providing services to the whole of the community.

  4. 4

    Right on! I agree completely. I’m mostly self-employed so I have to write a check every year. And when it’s a big ass check, it’s because I had a good year. I can’t complain about that.
    I think I hate whiners more than anything else.

  5. 5

    AMEN. I get so tired of people complaining about high taxes, then turning around and complaining about government programs that got cut. Choose a friggin’ side. Either you keep your money or you get subsidized programs, but you do not get both. Not how the system works.

  6. 6

    I’m in total agreement with you here, Greta, and I live in Taxatopia Canada. Yeah, we pay high taxes here, but we get our money’s worth.
    Granted, I did just get a $1000 refund calculated on my return, so I may be a little biased…

  7. 7

    Interesting thing, In Mass, you can elect, for that year, to pay a slightly higher income tax if you so choose. It’s not a lot (something like 5.3… vs 5.8…) but I figure it makes a difference, and since I get a refund every year anyway (yay being almost-broke!) I always choose it. Giving a little extra of money I never saw in the first place doesn’t hurt me 🙂

  8. 8

    blotzphoto, the quote is from Oliver Wendell Holmes.
    I once had an argument with a colleague over whether it was fair for those of us with no children to pay school taxes. I think I won when I asked if he thought it was worth it to pay for a fire department, even though his house wasn’t currently on fire. (Greta, I hope your stove is feeling better now.)

  9. 9

    I once had an argument with a colleague over whether it was fair for those of us with no children to pay school taxes. I think I won when I asked if he thought it was worth it to pay for a fire department, even though his house wasn’t currently on fire.
    That’s a really good analogy, Jim H. It benefits everybody in society to have children educated… just like it benefits everybody to not have houses on fire.

  10. 10

    Oh, yay! Speaking as an outsider, I always found the apparently common US attitude to taxation astounding. Stuff like seeing people complain about the state of schools, and then vote against paying for them. I mean, What??
    Of course, other things being equal, we’d all prefer to pay less tax than more… but other things are damn-well NOT equal, since taxes are needed for important things.
    So it comes down to what kind of society you want to live in.

  11. 11

    efrique, wanna know what the most common argument against raising taxes to pay for schools is? No, I won’t tell you, I’ll let you guess (hint: it’s the most depressing option imaginable. Yes, that one, the one you can’t believe anyone would be so stupid as to make, the one that can’t possibly be true, the one that makes you fully accept the idea of total depravity).
    Greta, I just commented on your brilliance on Daylight Atheism, and I have to do so again. Brava! Take a bow!

  12. 13

    There are probably some extreme anarcho-libertarians who are against taxes on principle, but I’d venture to guess that the majority of the teabag crowd, if you were to pin them down, think that taxes are just dandy as a general proposition. They just think that certain uses of tax revenue are bad, and they think that they could pay a whole lot less taxes if the government wouldn’t fund those things. And the thing is, I agree with that, and you probably do too.
    Now, you and I may have different lists of undesirable uses for tax dollars from the teabaggers. They’d probably place teachers who teach that homosexuality isn’t a disgusting perversion and welfare checks for people of different races than them pretty high on their lists; you and I might put the war in Iraq and subsidies for agribusiness high on ours. But I think, with the exception of the aforementioned lunatic fringe, that most of them would probably agree with the general proposition that taxes are necessary for society to function properly.
    The usual example of something we can all agree should be taxpayer-funded is roads. Although not even that is totally non-controversial; you’ll certainly find people who will make a not unreasonable argument that they’re effectively a subsidy to the car and oil industries; viz. “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and the very real destruction of the Los Angeles train system to make way for the freeways that it’s based on. And I can tell you that up here in Sonoma County, we have publicly-funded roads that don’t happen to go anywhere except from arterial routes into humongous winery estates; I admit to experiencing mild pangs of teabaggerism when I see county road crews, paid for by what I inevitably mentally characterize as “my tax dollars” on such occasions, working on what is essentially the driveway of some winery owned by some golfing buddy of some county supervisors. But still, most of us and most of the teabaggers would probably agree that taxes are fine when they’re spent on a lot of the stuff you listed: roads, fire departments, health inspectors. We just differ on some of the details.
    The right is protesting taxes this week, but it hasn’t always been a right-wing thing. Look up a guy named John Paul Malinowski for an example of 60’s-era Vietnam War tax protesting.

  13. 14

    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?
    I usually couch my response in capitalist terms: a company is beholden to its shareholders and, perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, to its customers.
    Democracy means that we’re all shareholders in this common enterprise we’re in. I’ve been thinking that “ZOMG the government is nationalizing the banks!” can easily be spun as “Now we’re all shareholders of CitiGroup”.

  14. Jay

    I agree with you about the need for taxes to pay for the necessary services and all that. I’m not sure that the tax system as it works now is fair, but that’s another argument and not what you are talking about here.
    I’m always amazed when someone complains about their tax dollars going to pay for a bridge in another state. What about the bridges in YOUR state that MY tax dollars paid for? It doesn’t make any sense.

  15. 16

    Jon, with all due respect, I must beg to differ. For one thing, there are people who seriously argue — wrongly, IMO, but seriously — that everything should be privatized and paid for voluntarily. Roads, fire departments, everything. (One of the slogans of the teabagging crowd is “Taxation with representation isn’t so great, either!”)
    But they are a pretty small fringe. More importantly: The Republican party has been making political hash for years out of a reflexive, generic “cut taxes, reduce government” agenda — without making a good argument, or indeed any argument at all, for why this particular program isn’t necessary, or why this particular program would be better handled privately than publicly. And they do it without making any proposals for how, specifically, the service in question will be handled if not by the government. (And, in fact, they’ve been doing it while not, in fact, reducing government — government spending skyrocketed during the Bush Jr. administration.)
    For years now, the Republican Party has been the party of the bear patrol: cut taxes, then wonder why the country is falling apart. (And then, like Mayor Quimby in the bear patrol episode, blame it on illegal immigrants.)
    I think we absolutely should be having debates about whether (X) should be paid for by taxes or handled privately. (“I don’t personally drive on that road” isn’t, IMO, a good argument; “Nobody drives on that road except the Wineowner family and their friends” is an excellent one.) But I think the debate should be about specific programs (and, as Jay pointed out, specific systems of taxation) — not a reflexive, generic, “Taxes are bad, mmkay.” Which is exactly what we’ve been getting for years… and is exactly what reflexive griping about the mere fact of having to pay taxes plays into.

  16. 17

    Excellent post. On the one hand, I wouldn’t mind being in a lower tax bracket and paying less into the system. On the other hand, I use a lot of the services that my tax dollars pay for, so, I don’t mind paying my fair share.

  17. 18

    To answer efrique’s question, and expand on Greta’s remarks – here in the U.S., the Republican party in the past few decades has advocated a strong anti-tax position that’s still fairly influential in American political thought. (Ronald Reagan, whom the modern GOP has deified, was especially responsible for this.) As Greta said, they weren’t particularly concerned with what the taxes were being spent on; they just wanted them cut, period, no matter the consequences.
    I think a lot of this has to do with the Republican party’s two major ideological backers: first, the wealthy and business interests, who are generally able to take care of themselves regardless and therefore see no need for a social safety net (and who, of course, would love to see their own tax burdens reduced). Second is the religious right, who oppose the existence of a social safety net because its absence tends to drive people toward the major private providers of social services: namely, the churches. When people are hungry, broke or destitute, it’s easy to force them to submit to proselytization in exchange for food or child care, and most religious right churches would jump at that chance.

  18. 19

    Taxes also pay for schools that teach children about contraception and evolution, which is another reason for the religious right to oppose them.

  19. 20

    But we’re not getting what we’re paying for. I wouldn’t mind in the least paying my tax (and I’m self-employed, so I know just how much pain is involved) if I thought that my taxes weren’t being squandered. Or worse, that they weren’t being spent attacking a country who never harmed us in any way.
    The food supply is becoming less and less safe every year, doctors and prescription drugs are killing us in record numbers, roads and bridges are disintegrating, our wounded soldiers are coming back to find no facilities to care for them, and we’re piling a truly staggering debt onto our grandchildren.
    Wow, that sounds like I’m a real pessimist, and I’m not. I think there’s a lot of good in this country, and much of it is paid for by our taxes. But those who are supposed to be accountable keep getting re-elected, government agencies are run by political hacks, and we’re paying for it.

  20. 22

    You make some valid points, Chakolate. The problem, though, is that none of of those things are going to get better with lower taxes — and in fact, they’ve been made worse by them. The FDA is underfunded, the highway department is underfunded, the Veteran’s Administration is underfunded… do I need to go on?
    It seems like you’re making the Bear Patrol argument, but in reverse — cut taxes, then complain that services don’t exist and everything’s falling apart.
    There are serious problems with the way our government is run. And we have the right, and indeed the responsibility, to complain about those problems and demand that they get fixed. But the pattern in American politics has been to say, “(X) isn’t working, why are we spending money on it?”, and then cut funding for it… and then act surprised when it works even worse than before. It doesn’t make sense. Some problems do get fixed by throwing money at them.
    (The only issue you bring up that might theoretically be addressed by lowering taxes is the debt. The problem, though, is that we have a crappy economy, and right now government spending is probably the only thing that will pull it out. And pulling the economy out of the toilet is an essential first step to eliminating the debt.)

  21. vel

    If you don’t like taxes, go live in a hut with no running water, no fire department, no police, etc.
    I have a mad hate on for those who whine about taxes, go somewhere where there are less taxes and *then* give grief to volunteer fire companies when their house burns down. No hydrants, no water system, no always on-call firemen. You made your choice, live with it you (*#&% hypocrites.

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