Now that tax day has come, and gone, we should reflect on the curious reaction that this day inspires in so many of our, ah, honorable friends opposite.
From the new fringe — the tea party movement — we hear that taxes are the ultimate intrusion: the government taking your money to fund programs you hate, or that you’ll never use. Let’s investigate.
First, the fiction that your entire pre-tax paycheck is “your money” is just that. Employers make pay decisions with full knowledge of your tax liability. Tax laws are only rarely ex post — i.e., exacted without an employer’s ability to compensate. Yes, inflation is an issue, but one that shows your complaint about your take-home salary lies with your employer, who has the power to make specifically tailored decisions, not the government, who expects those decisions to be made.
But I digress.
Although he was roundly mocked for it — oh, another Bidenism! — then-Senator Joe Biden was quite right: paying taxes is a patriotic act, the most simple way that the individual can help preserve the state that preserves him. Living in a nation that takes care of its own, and fights to retain her prime place in the world, is a privilege, but one that we can be proud of, and that we ought to be glad to maintain for ourselves and our posterity. As they say, freedom isn’t free.
Curiously, the putatively individualistic right acknowledges this truth in other areas: as they remind us — sometimes strangely, as if to justify the abuse of their dedication in wasteful wars of choice — liberty has its price, and requires brave men and women to risk, and sometimes surrender, their lives to defend their country and its interests. We cannot deny the patriotism, nobility, and valor of our brave servicemen and women; and we cannot deny that their prospective sacrifice is greater than the one we take on tax day. But conservatives’ ratification of the military’s sacrifice, and their willingness to force it, poses a question: if the problem with taxes is conceptual, that they’re per se intrusive, why should we more willingly ask Americans to give their lives, than give their money? Shouldn’t the greater include the lesser? Why doesn’t it?
Perhaps it’s because, in wartime, the relation between victory and the soldier’s noble sacrifice is more poignant, and more direct. But for the sacrifice of these men and women, we’d never have taken the hill, which won the battle, which won the war. Still, so many of America’s greatest triumphs come from the time and money we’ve invested in ourselves. But for a strong tax base, we’d never have built the highway system that united the country that sustains the economy that makes us a world power. Why can’t that connection be appreciated?
I suspect there are two reasons. First, the right’s fight against taxes is essentially a proxy war against entitlements. Because they don’t value societal well-being as a public good, and because it’s such a costly good to produce, to contest the modern tax system is to contest the very concept of investment in our people. Or, secondly, it might be something far less noble: a reliance on a philosophy that places money and economic freedom over life and personal freedom. The modern conservative movement is heir to the Lochner tradition, which treated the due process clause as a bulwark against regulation, rather than a bulwark against capricious moral legislation. We won that battle long ago, but the combatants still linger. You see them in every tea party politician or protester characterizing healthcare as an infringement on personal “freedom.”
America maintains her hegemony not just by winning wars but by, like a good business, investing in infrastructure, and in her citizens. If we accept that premise, we needn’t be glad about paying our taxes, but we should at least understand why we have to do so, and avoid opposing it on principle.