Tax day and civilized society


The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 1927 in the case of Compañía General de Tabacos de Filipinas v. Collector of Internal Revenue is, it is safe to say, little remembered except perhaps by tax lawyers and the deepest of policy wonks.

But a dissenting opinion in that case contains a memorable disquisition on taxes by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., one of the most esteemed justices in the court’s long history.

The somewhat dense full statement is this:

“It is true, as indicated in the last cited case, that every exaction of money for an act is a discouragement to the extent of the payment required, but that which in its immediacy is a discouragement may be part of an encouragement when seen in its organic connection with the whole. Taxes are what we pay for civilized society, including the chance to insure.”

“Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.”

That phrase, inscribed (with an “a” before the word civilized) is inscribed on the exterior of the Internal Revenue Service building in Washington, D.C.

It is a phrase worth embracing today, difficult that may be on the final day to settle up our income taxes with the IRS for last year. We’re sure many of you are still laboring over your returns, taking advantage of three extra days beyond the normal April 15 deadline (a weekend and Emancipation Day, celebrated on Monday in Washington, gave us the extended time).

These are especially tax-averse times, although an objection to taxes has been a continuous thread running through United States history since before there was a United States. The Boston Tea Party we learned in grade school may be largely mythical, but colonial objection to British taxes was real and a driving force behind our fight for independence.

It’s easy to carp. Everyone has a government program they can criticize, even deride. Conservatives may denounce social-welfare payments or regulatory fiefdoms. Liberals will decry excessive defense spending. It’s easy to conclude that someone else is getting a better break on their taxes than you are.

But we also favor those government programs that favor us. That’s only human nature.

Here’s the rub: We pay taxes, often, for programs and services that are not our own highest priority in exchange for others paying taxes for government functions more important to us than to them. And the notion of shrinking government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub,” as tax foe Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform famously put it, is not the answer.

Because to do that is to risk drowning civilized society in that same tub.