We Americans are proud of our democracy and the exceptional opportunities it has offered us. Why then are we possessed of a near pathological aversion to taxes?
We are the richest country in the world and the oldest of its democracies. And yet, because of this tax phobia, we do not have access to health care or high quality public education to the extent that we need it, and to the extent that other developed nations offer their citizens. Moreover we have a physical infrastructure that is crumbling. Conservatives claim to be the guardians of small government but is small government a virtue when it does not provide for the needs of its people? They take pride in tax reduction for businesses and the wealthy, claiming they are good for the economy, but where is the evidence of that?
Political theorist and author Benjamin Barber, when asked in a TV interview early in the first term of George W. Bush’s presidency what he thought of the president’s tax policy, said simply, “Paying taxes is what makes us a people.” Taking it from there, I ask, “What kind of society are we? And what kind of society to we aspire to be?”
Do we want to fulfill the noble vision of our founding fathers—the promise of liberty and justice for all? If we do, don’t we have to contribute our fair share to take care of needs that don’t take care of themselves, eg infrastructure, and the basic requirements of people who are at the lower end of the economic scale? Are we more worried about avoiding socialism (a highly unlikely prospect) than about feeding hungry people, or providing adequate disaster relief? What is the virtue of paying lower taxes? I just don’t get how that fits into the picture of strengthening a nation that provides its people with access to justice, freedom and, yes, dignity.
I have had the opportunity to visit a number of countries that are in transition to democracy—attempting to recover from oppressive regimes of both the right and the left. It is difficult for them to make that transition—especially taking the step of taxing citizens, because they have not acquired the habit, and they do not recognize the power that paying taxes gives them as citizens—instead of the “comforts” they have enjoyed as subjects—and even victims, without any of the rights and responsibilities that they will enjoy as citizens. If Barber is right, that paying taxes makes us a people, let’s ask, isn’t that what all of us want?
My dream is that in this presidential election season, that issue will be off the table, but that is just a dream. My hope is that we as Americans will reject the rhetoric of tax phobia, see it not as a virtue but a social pathology, and become more responsible for addressing the needs of our society and the needs of the world. If we subscribe to the best of our values as Americans, we have to lead the world by our example—not on a leash, but by providing a beacon of light on the very long—indeed, endless path leading to what sociologist Robert Bellah called a “good society.”
Let’s lead with a sense of responsibility. I believe that the most precious right that we have as Americans is the right to be responsible for the common good. I hope that we will make this next era a time when we rekindle the passion for the public good that has made our nation as great as it is.