Taxes, the price we pay

Apr. 13, 2014 @ 03:36 PM

With millions of procrastinators on their final sprint to the midnight Tuesday deadline for filing our income-tax returns for last year, no doubt even those who are comfortable with the idea of the progressive income tax may utter a grumble or two.

It may be small comfort to realize this is the 100th filing season for the modern income tax. It probably is no comfort, as we struggle with multiple schedules, complex calculations and page upon page of dense, sometimes obtuse instructions, to realize taxpayers in 1914 (when the deadline for filing your return was March 1) face a four-page Form 1040 – and those four pages included instructions.

Bitter critics of the graduated income tax and those who genuinely loath the idea of taxing income at all – and they seem to be numerous and vocal these days -- may look back nostalgically on a couple of landmarks in the winding history of the taxation.

In 1872, Congress repealed the nation’s first income tax, which had been enacted a decade earlier to pay the costs of waging the Civil War.  On April 8, 1895, the Supreme Court struck down the income tax, resurrected the year before, as unconstitutional.

A booming country faced the need for more revenue than tariffs, excise taxes and the like could bring in, however, and Congress soon passed and sent to the states the 16th amendment, explicitly authorizing the income tax. The amendment was ratified in February 1913, and Congress soon enacted the first thus-sanctioned tax to be levied on income earned between March and the end of the year.

In the century since, we have debated ceaselessly the details of taxation, at the federal, state and local levels.  We’ve tried vainly to reduce the complexity that has encrusted the tax code over time. We’ve heard proposals for such dramatic and unlikely proposals as replacing the income tax with a “Value-added” tax -- a sort of national sales tax -- or introducing a flat tax so streamlined its proponents claim we could file our return on a post card.

But with anti-tax sentiment, always robust, at an especially fevered pitch, tax day may be a good time to remember our taxes pay for public goods. They pay for national defense and national security. They pay to monitor and enforce safety in the work place, ensure safe food supplies and medicines, to preserve our national parks and monuments, to explore space and discover treatment and cures for diseases.

And, yes, they help to alleviate misery and suffering, to provide a safety net for those who misfortune, malady or the “creative destruction” of a dynamic economy have rendered in need. 

We can disagree, sometimes vehemently, over how best to apportion the resources we collect through taxes, and how best to apportion the burden. But as we send off our 1040s by post or modem, it’s worth remembering that, as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, “"Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.''