The Morality of Paying Taxes

It’s impossible to forcibly prevent people from benefiting when tax dollars are spent. The only possible option is to forcibly ensure that people pay for the benefits they receive. This is just provided that people have a voice in their government.

A libertarian friend of mine (whom I greatly respect, despite our political differences) recently posted this meme:

Consent_Meme

This is funny on the surface, but it’s deeply misleading. Consent is given for taxes, albeit in an unfamiliar way. To see why, let’s look at the example just above taxation: a business transaction.

In the type of transaction most familiar to most of us, money is exchanged for a good or service provided by the business. Another good or service could be bartered instead, but most of us find money to be a more convenient medium of exchange. After all, it’s hard to make change out of a cow—at least, if you want the cow to stay alive. But the same principles apply. The good or service is usually not provided until the cost is paid, but this is not always the case. Think, for instance, of buying a home or a new car—in that case, the good is usually only purchasable by simultaneously purchasing the service of a lender. We’re all fine with that; the cost of these items is so high that it’s the only way for them to be accessible to most consumers in the market. If payments aren’t made down the line, however, that good can get taken away by the lender. If a person doesn’t want to pay for the item, they don’t have to—but if they don’t pay, they don’t get that good or service.

Governments also provide goods and services, from paved roadways to a service of national defense. They may be more or less efficient in providing these services, and figuring out the best way to provide them is worthy of debate, but that’s beyond the scope of this post. For now, just keep in mind that governments provide goods and services. Using our transaction analogy, it would seem fair for a person who didn’t want the services to not have to pay for them.

The problem is, most government services are impossible to repossess. It therefore follows that the only way refusing to pay taxes could be fair or ethical is if such a person could prevent themselves (or be forcibly prevented) from enjoying the benefits tax money spending creates.

On the local level, that would mean being barred from calling 911, using roads or sidewalks or parks, or even having your trash collected. At the state level, that person’s children would have to be denied access to public schools, and if good school funding resulted in, say, increased property values or lower crime rates, the non-taxpayer would not be allowed to benefit from those effects either. Nationally, if the military ever kept the nation safe from a threat, or if an EPA rule ever resulted in cleaner water or air, the “conscientious non-taxpayer” would have to be somehow prevented from enjoying those benefits.

Short of exiling someone from the country, I don’t see how that is logistically possible, let alone morally permissible. How do you repossess time spent at a park, or education gained in a public school? Unlike a business transaction, the services of a government benefit not individual purchaser, but society as a whole. Hence the term public goods and services.

Government services not only benefit society as a whole, but they do so in ways that are impossible to “opt out” of. (Government goods and services that are optable generally carry a fee rather than a tax, such as a driver’s license fee or a filing fee.) It is therefore perfectly just that society as a whole should have to pay for those services. In America, we decide how to pay for them (and who will pay how much) by electing people to represent us in the bodies where those decisions are made. And since no one in our society has the ability to prevent themselves from receiving the benefits of public services, everyone is required to pay. (This is somewhat simplified; our elected representatives have constructed a tax system where the very poor don’t have to pay, on the basis that they merit financial help. Even with such a progressive income tax, though, everyone has to submit tax forms proving that status.)

Memes like the one above make me wonder if people have forgotten two important principles:

  1. The rallying cry of our revolution wasn’t “No taxation without consent,” it was, “No taxation without representation.” Because as our founding fathers understood, being Enlightenment scholars, having a voice in government was how citizens signed the social contract, not having absolute control over everything that happened to them. As we saw above, that kind of control isn’t possible in our society.
  2. When Jesus was asked about the rightness of paying taxes to Rome, he asked to see a penny, then said, “Whose image and superscription hath it? They answered and said, Cæsar’s. And he said unto them, Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which be Cæsar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s.” (Luke 20:24–25)

In a similar vein, I ask you, whose “image and superscription” hath this:

OneDollarBill

When it comes to taxes, let us render unto Washington the things which be Washington’s.

Moreover, we know that everything we have, no matter how hard we worked to earn it, is really a blessing from God. At the end of the day, it all belongs to him. Why, then, would we “covet [our] own property,” contrary to God’s commandment, in our frustration against paying taxes?

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