The Tax Revolt and Common Sense

A lot of people have been arguing that we shouldn’t be “forced” to pay taxes for things we don’t want to support. Some of the folks arguing that are people in office or running for office, usually as libertarians or conservative Republicans. Others have spawned revolts at the ballot box. Others are ordinary folk calling in to complain.

So let’s talk sense about taxes.

First, it is important to understand that the argument that we shouldn’t be “forced” to pay taxes for things we don’t want to support has no logical stopping point. Roads, schools, libraries, public health, clean water, police, armies, all of us don’t want to support something. And it simply isn’t true that there is a collection of things we all agree about. We don’t. The things I’ve listed seem special to many of us but disagreement is rampant anyway. So if there are some things you think government should do for you, you’ve really abandoned the no taxes without consent argument and you are talking about the justification for individual items. Demanding justification is very different from a sloppy you-can’t-tax-me-for-what-I-don’t-want-to-support argument. And that extreme libertarian position is obviously very different from the seminal American “no taxation without representation” position of our Revolution. We are represented, thank heavens, along with all of our fellow citizens who have different priorities about taxation. Anyone who has explored the writings of the Founders of this country knows that one of their strongest common beliefs was that there was a public good and government was instituted to advance it. And one of the things that George Washington did as president was to enforce the tax laws against those who disagreed with the tax on whiskey. Americans had, and have, an obligation to bend to the general good. To disagree about what that is, certainly, but the you-can’t-tax-me-for-what-I-don’t-want-to-support argument would have been anathema to the Founders who were actively involved in public projects to build roads, canals, banks, a postal service and other public improvements and public services.

Many of us could, and some do, get things privately. Some people can build cisterns, collect and treat their own water, send their children to private schools, afford their own medical staff or their own security forces. So some say everyone is entitled only to what they can do for themselves. There are places in this world where the rich simply wall themselves off from everyone else – but those places can be very dangerous; Haiti and parts of Central America come to mind. I think there is a strong moral argument against complaining that some people have greater need for public services. But there is also a practical argument – an argument about safety. The most dangerous places in the world are places where the gap between rich and poor is huge. It’s a lot safer to put people to work and make it possible for them to earn a decent living and envision a brighter future for themselves and their children.

And it simply is not the case that public services can be provided by charity. It doesn’t work. And in fact many of us who are quite willing to pay taxes are also not willing to be suckers and contribute to public projects that we think will benefit everyone if everyone doesn’t contribute. Or if we think that what we can contribute won’t make a difference. Economists, liberal and conservative, call that the free rider problem. The only way to serve the public is to expect the public, the whole public, to pay the bill.

So argue the particulars certainly. But these claims that you-can’t-tax-me-for-what-I-don’t-want-to-support only serve to mark the speakers as either uninformed or disingenuous.

This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 29, 2009.

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