With a new congress in session, we are going to hear a lot about the terrible “T” word – taxes. We will also hear words like “fair share” and “tax the rich.” Since taxes are a necessary evil, there should be an ongoing discussion about both the necessary and the evil part.
To save myself a lot of frustration, I began long ago to look at my pay as being only that part of my check left after taxes were withheld and went about my business. I had friends who had gotten into the anti tax movement, and it consumed their lives, leaving them poorer in the end. However, my approach has also left me poorer.
Consider the evil part first. Let me make a comparison here. In a previous column I talked about war and its main purpose being to maim and kill people. A government at war is a way to legitimize killing which in another context would be called murder. Because of this, it should be done only after careful consideration and only after there is no other rational alternative.
In the same way, taxation is a way to legitimize theft and because of this it is evil. As such it should only be done after careful consideration. The Robin Hood story might have been entertaining reading when we were kids, but the idea of stealing from the rich is wrong, even if we give it to the poor.
In its simplest, rawest terms, taxation is armed robbery. Since you and I don’t push the issue, we never see the gun that backs up the IRS, but my friend who did two years in a federal pen for failure to pay up or the one who lost his house to the IRS understand this well.
So, that is the evil side of the issue, but none of us can deny the necessity of taxation. Our country must be defended, our cities must be policed, and we must have some way to deliver justice to those who have been wronged. These things must be paid for and since we all benefit from them, we should all pay for them. But what about taxation when it is used to achieve social ends? The further you get away from taxation for defense, policing, and jurisprudence, the more the evil and less the necessity.
If you get too much evil and not enough necessity you have a real moral problem. Taxation is at its most evil form when used simply for redistribution of wealth. This is the Robin Hood myth that it is alright to rob from the rich and give to the poor. Can you justify theft just because the person being stolen from has plenty left after you are done?
How far can we go and still me moral? Take our highways and roads for example. They are built with tax dollars, but most of those dollars are taken in the form of fuel taxes from those who use the roads.
What about education? We do want an educated citizenry and so we don’t feel too badly about being taxed for this, but to what extent? There comes a point where the benefits go only to the person receiving them. Most of the social service benefits go only to the recipient.
So, how do we justify this so the theft looks legit? There is a saying that has been attributed to a number of sources: no democracy is safe once the people discover they can vote themselves money from the public largess. I will add to that, nor when the politicians discover they can buy votes from the same. This leads to a moral morass. I hear politicians like Governor Mike Huckabee proposing flat tax schemes. It is an idea that will never happen because our tax structure is a primary tool for social engineering and politicians are not going to give up that tool.
We could go on and talk about public funding of the arts, the building of sports stadiums, and on and on. It is one thing to extract money at the point of a gun to support the court house or the police force but quite another to pay an artist for something most of us would not buy and hang in our own homes.
Much of what we do with taxes seems good. I look at people playing in the city park next to my house and think what a great facility the city has built to enhance the quality of our lives. However, we had to take money from somebody to do it. When we promote taxing Peter to buy something for Paul, we should always ask if it is necessary. Necessity helps make evil feel a little more right.