“It’s NOT stealing! It’s just… using something without paying for it- in what twisted universe is that ‘stealing’?”
-Willow Rosenberg, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
This week on Facebook I’d posted an article from MSNBC about an asshole Congressman (guess which party) who had to deal with angry peasants taxpayers at a town hall, and objecting to the idea that they, the people, pay his salary, on the grounds that he pays his own salary through his taxes, presumably including the taxes he paid over a lifetime before becoming a federal employee who gets his income through taxes. The first comment on the post was a conservative friend who said (quoting indirectly) “Sounds like something I’d hear a Democrat say- followed by questioning patriotism for not wanting to pay taxes”. Which in itself is just knee-jerk conservative deflection. But the next response was a liberal friend who actually bought into the premise. Again, quoting without attribution to protect the guilty, that friend said “for information’s sake, not paying your taxes IS unpatriotic. By definition. Taxes are the price we pay for a working civilization. (Note that since the GOP decided to cut taxes on the mega-rich and corporations, society isn’t functioning very smoothly. Kind of like cutting off the oxygen supply to the brain). Paying your taxes is a part of your civic duty. So, how is refusing to pay your taxes NOT unpatriotic?”
I was mulling over exactly why that attitude rubs me the wrong way. And then it hit me to ask whether this person, or anyone else with that sentiment, is deliberately NOT taking the basic deductions and exemptions that they are eligible for. After all, if willingness to pay taxes is a measure of virtue, not taking those deductions is proof of patriotism. The fact that the dodges are largely built into the system is obvious proof that most people think they need their own money more than the government does, even if it goes to good purpose. And after this election, even liberals may be willing to admit that not all of what we give government money for goes to good purpose.
Given that what used to be “conservatism” now oscillates between being outright evil or merely reactionary, it might seem that my bleeding-heart libertarianism leans too much to the Left. But arguments like “paying taxes is patriotic” remind me why I can’t be in that camp.
Most people don’t consider this stuff, because they usually don’t pay taxes directly, and their income is at such a level that they may get a refund after April 15. That’s because most people have taxes taken straight out of their paycheck. That isn’t always the case, though. For instance, for a brief period of about six weeks, I worked with Uber. As you may know, Uber has a very creative sense of business accounting, such that employees are not employees, they’re “contractors.” But in practical terms, what this meant is that I had no withholding on that income. In the short term, that meant I made considerably more per hour than I did at my full-time job (and also considerably more than I did as an actual cab driver, but then the amount of gross taken by cab companies from the ‘book’ makes the average pimp look generous). In the long term that meant I ended up having to pay almost 280 dollars on a little under $1900 gross, whereas if my job with the W-2 was my only source of income for the year, I probably would have gotten a small refund. In itself, it’s not worth crying about: 300 over 1900 is slightly less than 15 percent, which is about what the withholding is on my standard paycheck. But it’s occurred to me, and a few of the people I’ve been talking with (not all of whom are right-wingers) that if you were going to pay X amount one way or another, you might as well keep your gross (minus FICA taxes and company deductions) and put the difference in the bank so that since you will be paying that money, you’ll be paying it after it’s earned interest. Otherwise, refund on withholding just means you gave government an interest-free loan and they’re paying the principal back. Some of it.
The Wikipedia entry on the subject quotes a Department of Treasury page (allegedly, since the archived source is no longer on the US Treasury site, with treasury.gov/education reading as ‘File Not Found’):
“Another important feature of the income tax that changed (with America’s entry into World War II) was the return to income tax withholding as had been done during the Civil War. This greatly eased the collection of the tax for both the taxpayer and the Bureau of Internal Revenue. However, it also greatly reduced the taxpayer’s awareness of the amount of tax being collected, i.e. it reduced the transparency of the tax, which made it easier to raise taxes in the future.”
I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.
The pro-government/pro-tax apologia is countered by a meme much more common in social media, especially among libertarians: “Taxation is Theft.” Why, though? The answer is presumed to be obvious. But because society has not evolved to a point of pure voluntarism, some government is necessary, meaning that law enforcement is necessary to some extent, meaning that that includes the collection of revenue for government to run in the first place. So strictly speaking, I can’t agree that “taxation is theft.” I DO think that the assertion “taxation is theft” is closer to accuracy than the assertion “paying taxes is patriotic.” Because taxation is mandatory and patriotism is not. You can be a citizen and not be patriotic, but if you live in this country, you still have to pay taxes. If you are an American citizen and do NOT live in this country, you still have to pay US income tax (which is why a lot of expatriates would rather give up US citizenship than be ‘patriotic’.) You can even be a resident alien, but if you live here, or you’re a foreign business with American holdings, you still pay American taxes. Love of America has nothing to do with it. That is a subjective internal judgment. Whereas if taxes are ultimately involuntary, the only thing that makes taxation NOT theft is that it’s the government forcing you.
And on that subject, PLEASE let us dispense with the legal fiction that paying taxes is voluntary. Reporting income is voluntary. Paying taxes on reported income is mandatory, and enforcing payment is one of the priorities that the US government actually takes seriously. As it should, frankly, or else it could not fulfill its functions, even the ones that most people like. So why bullshit us by telling us that there is, or even ought to be, a choice?
What’s irritating about that is that since your employer has to report payroll to the IRS for its own tax purposes, they already KNOW what your gross income ought to be for purposes of calculating percentage owed. Much of the complication of the tax code is precisely the fact that it is voluntary in the sense that tax liability is self-assessed, which creates gamesmanship – and a very big industry – out of tax preparation as people of various income levels try to justify various schemes to not pay government, even if it means paying hundreds of dollars to tax preparers.
Does that sound like a culture where the citizenry esteems paying taxes as a patriotic duty? More to the point, does it seem like government policy is encouraging or discouraging that sense of duty?
I do think there are several voluntary actions, which are not legal obligations, that are nevertheless non-negotiable in terms of being a good citizen. These include: voting, respecting the national anthem (whether kneeling or standing) and not endorsing a white supremacist movement that already rebelled against the country. Stuff that would be easy for most people. But paying taxes is not a patriotic act. It is a responsibility, and liberals can make correct arguments for why it is a necessary responsibility, in principle. It’s when we have to determine how much is charged and for what purpose that we get into issues.
I agree that taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society. I just think we should get a money-back guarantee.
If liberals and other apologists for government were not so disingenuous about what paying taxes means for the average person, maybe the average person would be less inclined to resent that responsibility.