What  we pay for a civilized society

I just filed my federal and state tax returns. It’s a chore I dread every year. I don’t much like paperwork and I especially don’t like financial paperwork, so tax time is a double whammy. No, it’s a triple whammy, because I likewise don’t like parting ways with my hard earned money. Who does?

No one likes doing their taxes and no one likes paying their taxes, but you gotta do it, right? So I do it, and I grumble my way through the process, like just every other American. Seriously: if you find someone who enjoys all of this, steer clear of that person. They’re probably messed up in a lot of other ways as well.

What I don’t do, however, is look at the amount of money I pay in taxes and become resentful or filled with rage. I don’t think to start a political crusade based on the idea of ending or severely limiting my tax burden as a matter of principle. 

Part of this is because I’m old enough to remember and have read enough to know that tax rates used to be way higher than they are now. From a purely selfish perspective, I know that I am paying far less in taxes at my income level than I would’ve been at almost any time since the Great Depression. To act like my current marginal taxation rate is akin to tyranny is selfish, ahistorical nonsense. And don’t even get me started on the tax rates people pay in some other countries. 

But my relative sanguinity in the face of the dreariness of tax time is not simply a matter of me saying “it could be worse.” It’s a matter of understanding that my taxes are not some penalty leveled or punishment exacted. Taxes are — to use an often-cited and often-misattributed phrase — the price we pay for a civilized society.

Taxes make a peaceful existence possible by funding the armed forces which defend us from our enemies and the police officers and fire fighters who defend us from perils at home. Taxes help keep our drinking water safe. Taxes help create standardized systems and regulations which allow business to be more easily conducted. Taxes pay for the roads over which we travel and ship our goods and the schools which educate our populace. They help pay for health care and medicine. They help us respond to and provide relief from disasters, natural or man made.

Which isn’t to say the more taxes the better. Taxes should be leveled wisely and tax revenues should be spent carefully. Like any other expenditure of money — in the case of taxes, the people’s money — close attention must be paid to where the money is going and hard questions must be asked as to whether the expenditure is truly necessary. No one gets a blank check in this world, the government included.

But it is to say that taxes are not, like many on the right would have you believe, some evil confiscatory scheme. We, as a society, are buying things with that money. Things that individuals cannot buy on their own like a military, a police force and a space program. Things that, if we left it to the operation of the market alone, we would not have at all, like clean water, safe workplaces and assistance to the old, the sick and the poor. If you don’t believe that, go look at what America was like a hundred years ago and ask yourself why the market didn’t provide for those things then. Ask yourself if you’d choose to live in that world if you did not know before you chose whether you’d be a have or a have-not. 

Everyone would love to pay lower taxes, but arguing in favor of cutting taxes for its own sake is inherently deceptive and dishonest. If you’re cutting taxes, you’re necessarily buying fewer of those collective goods, and you thus have an obligation to explain (a) what we should be buying less of; and (b) why it’s OK to have less of it. We rarely get that explanation from those who promise lower taxes. We’re sold lower taxes as an end unto themselves, with a side-helping of demonization of the government or, increasingly, a demonization of the people who benefit from government services. We get craven dishonesty, like that we’re seeing in the current healthcare debate, in which politicians blatantly lie about what their programs will accomplish because they are afraid to admit that they’re not interested in actually using tax dollars to help those who need it. They’ll happily shout about lower taxes in a vacuum, however. 

I hate doing my taxes. And I don’t much like paying them. But I get something for my money.  I get the benefits of what I believe to be the best country in the world, no matter what is currently ailing it. It’s not the best because God or the universe deemed it so. It’s the best because it was built to be the best. And just as it costs money to build something, it costs money to maintain it. And so, each spring, I fill out that 1040. And for the rest of the year I do the best I can to make sure that my money is well spent. 

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.