As it’s the season of giving — to the government — again, it’s a good time to consider anew the purposes and justifications of taxes.
A central tenet of libertarianism is that taxation is theft, and I repudiate this notion. Yes, if we refuse to pay our taxes, we’re likely to face criminal and civil penalties, but if you appropriate property or services without paying, the same result is probable. What the libertarians leave out is the fact that we receive vast benefits by living in a society. Now they’ll assert at this point that “the state” isn’t the sum total of society, but I’ve invited them repeatedly to offer any example of a working group of people who have achieved the wonders of our modern world without government. I’d be more impressed, for example with their argument if they’d make it without using the Internet, a network that was created by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a branch of that quintessential state institution of the military, and various academic organizations, also funded by the supposedly evil state. The real theft, to the degree to which libertarian ideas are carried out, is the sponging off what government makes possible while shirking the duty to pay for it.
But even a liberal such as I must admit that there is good cause for frustration about taxes. For one thing, the revolutionary slogan that set this nation in motion — no taxation without representation — was always disingenuous, and today it’s impossible to offer any realistic denial of it. While the conventional wisdom that only a third of the population at the time supported separation from Britain may be wrong, it’s true to point out that not everyone was in favor and that significant portions of the people here — women and slaves, among others — didn’t get a say. And it would be naive to say that the leaders of the revolution weren’t aware of the financial advantages to independence. These days, when requiring politicians to wear uniforms like NASCAR drivers that show their sponsors sounds like an obvious bit of honesty, it’s all too clear that the people who impose taxes on us represent us when they have nothing else to do, if at all.
Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks argues that we have do get money out of politics to solve that problem, something like Cato the Elder declaring that Carthage must be destroyed in every speech. That may be the legal solution that has to be employed, but another answer is for voters to use our power to fire any politician who doesn’t work for us. The question here is how lazy people will be.
But the bigger problem with taxation is that we aren’t getting an appropriate return on the investment. We have a nation with crumbling roads and bridges, schools that fail to educate students and colleges that leave students in debt for decades, healthcare that costs too much and still leaves out too many, and research institutions that struggle to survive if they can’t prove that immediate profits will result. We also get a magnificent military that can drop a bomb from the stratosphere into a specific chimney, but can’t defeat minimally trained peasants.
I don’t object to paying taxes. I don’t even mind — all that much — paying for things that I object to. If I have to pay for military adventures and fossil fuel subsidies, others shouldn’t complain about paying for contraceptives and abortions — though tax dollars don’t pay for the latter and pay far too little for the former. But if I must send a part of my earnings to the government, it’s reasonable for me to expect benefits coming back. Taxation isn’t theft, but it is participation, and as things stand at the present, too many of us are being used as sources of wealth for the already wealthy. And if voters don’t put a stop to this, it’s our own fault.
We get the government that we deserve, and we pay for what we accept. This reality has to be driven home to every American. When we take responsibility for this, the 15th of April will feel like a day of patriotism, not nostalgia for revolt.
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