Taxation and Its Metaphors

We as a country seem to no longer understand what taxation is. Perhaps we never did. Public figures right and left talk about taxes as though they were theft, as though they were charity or as though tax money still belongs to the taxpayer. These metaphors represent dangerous misconceptions, and they lead to bad law. So long as we talk about tax in a faulty way, our public debate ignores the proper meaning of government and has a misguided debate.

First of all, taxation is not charity. Most recently, the response to Warren Buffet’s New York Times editorial about the under-taxation of the “mega-rich” demonstrates the prevalence of this misconception.  Senator Mitch McConnell, for example, made this allegation while proposing that Buffet “can send in a check” if he believes that the tax rate on the ultra-rich is too low. Offering to let the rich pay more, but only if they wish to, misrepresents debates about taxation. Taxation is not another charitable cause for people to support as their consciences dictate. It’s an obligation that every citizen has to support the government.

People who argue for lower taxes aren’t being uncharitable. They’re making a case, rightly or wrongly, that Americans should hold onto more of our money individually rather than pooling it in our collective organization, the government. Similarly, those like Buffet, who want higher taxes, aren’t overflowing with “liberal guilt” or charitable spirit. They’re well aware that they could write the Internal Revenue Service a check. But to do so would be fundamentally different than agreeing collectively to a different tax rate. Higher-tax advocates simply believe that in order to sustain the functions of government, everyone must contribute more through taxes.

Similarly, taxation is not theft. The trivial argument goes like this: “Theft” is a crime, and the law defines what is and is not a crime. However, there’s also a deeper moral reason why taxation in our country is not theft. In a representative democracy, when you are taxed, you haven’t forfeited your assets. You’re moving them from your private account to the social account, in which you have a share. Your government is not like your landlord. It’s like your family. Like your family, you contribute to a joint account, so that you can collectively pursue important goals. Taxes aren’t theft, any more than your spouse with a lower-paying job is robbing you. Taxes are how we participate in society.

That doesn’t mean that taxes can’t be unfair, unjust, or unbearably harsh. A classic example would be special taxes on the members of a minority group or religion, or taxation without representation. Such taxes can certainly be wrong. But they still do not constitute theft. They should be abolished, but they don’t undermine the legitimacy of taxation in general.

Both of these misconceptions lead back to a fundamental misunderstanding. Tax money is not “mine” or “yours” or “theirs.” It’s ours. Tax money isn’t being taken from us by some shadowy force outside of our control, as in the case of theft. And it isn’t something that we freely participate in, like charity. Instead, taxation is the process of shifting money from the American people in their private capacities as workers, owners, producers, and consumers to their public capacity, as citizens and government to accomplish a common goal. This does mean tax money is spent on projects that individual payers disagreed with. But if the government never does something you disagree with, you’re living in a dictatorship. And you’re the dictator. Democracy means spending money on collective projects, many of which we benefit from, and all of which we agreed upon as fairly as we are able.

These misunderstandings don’t simply lead to foolish and circular public debates. They lead to bad policy. The government of the U.S.A. is the collective process whereby we, as citizens, decide on the great projects of our society and organize to carry them out. It’s only because we can organize together, all Americans contributing to these great efforts, that we can care for our old and sick, defend our country (and others) from attack, land on the moon, and support one of the highest standards of living in the world. It’s only with collective investment in police, schools, and infrastructure that it’s possible to create the hugely profitable businesses and comfort for ourselves and our families that we take for granted.

When we forget that this is the nature of government, our collective voice and unified power, when we treat taxation as theft, charity, or private purchase, we allow our government to collapse into the petty-minded thief that we imagined it to be. It’s only by remembering the true meaning and purpose of taxation and government that we can continue to achieve great things as a society.

Louis R. Evans ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House.

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