Today in America income-tax returns are due, which means it’s time for those who worship at the altar of government to trot out the 1904 aphorism by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.: “Taxes are the price we pay for civilized society.” You want roads to drive on? Clean water to drink? Schools for your children? Then pay your taxes! With a smile, dammit!
The Internal Revenue Service is particularly enamored of that Holmes maxim, which is chiseled in granite over the main entrance to the IRS headquarters in Washington, DC. If I were the president or the Treasury secretary, I would order that engraving removed and replaced with the very different words of another judge. Learned Hand, widely regarded as one of the finest judicial philosophers in the nation’s history, was for more than 30 years a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Here’s what he had to say about taxes:
“Anyone may so arrange his affairs that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose the pattern which will best pay the Treasury,” ruled Hand in a 1934 decision. “There is not even a patriotic duty to increase one's taxes.”
Just so. Self-respecting Americans don't pay their taxes with giddy delight at the thought of all the “civilized society” they’re buying; they pay their taxes with grim reluctance because the law says they have to. I know I do. As a patriotic citizen, I begrudge the income, sales, and property taxes imposed upon me and my family. Just as our colonial forefathers begrudged the sugar, tea, and stamp taxes imposed on them . Resistance to taxes is a hallmark of our national character. Or at any rate, it should be.
The claim that we all benefit from taxes is a lie. Peter doesn't benefit when he is robbed to pay Paul; he is victimized.” The only tax-supported benefits I desire are the ones government was created for in the first place, to protect the people against criminals and dangerous enemies, to maintain just and effective courts, to keep freedom secure, and to carry out vital public projects that citizens could not reasonably organize in any other way.
I wouldn't have the gall to demand that other people give up part of their paycheck so that I can collect a paycheck without working, or get birth control for free, or be paid not to grow soybeans, or be subsidized for installing solar panels. If spending money forcibly taken from other people isn’t legalized theft, it will do until a closer facsimile comes along.
According to the Tax Foundation, the people of the United States will pay $3.4 trillion in federal taxes and $1.9 trillion in state and local taxes this year, for a total tax bill of $5.29 trillion. Which is more than $16,000 for every man, woman, and child. That amounts to 29% of the nation’s income, more than we will collectively spend on food, clothing, and housing combined. This is the price we’re paying for civilized society?
All that confiscated wealth certainly pays for a lot of government. That’s a far cry from more civilization. When Holmes first uttered his serene defense of taxes in 1904, federal and state income taxes didn’t even exist, and the per-capita tax burden was all of $20. (The equivalent in 2019 dollars would be $571). The taxes Holmes was glad to pay, in other words, amounted to a minuscule fraction of the taxes Americans fork over today, not only income taxes, but also sales taxes, excise taxes, meals taxes, airport taxes, capital gains taxes, payroll taxes, estate taxes, cigarette taxes, property taxes, and gasoline taxes.