It’s time to say goodby and good riddance to the month of April–the “cruelest” month, presumably because federal taxes are due. And let’s face it, no one likes taxes.
And every year, the avalanche of anti-tax articles is predictable as April showers.
Over at The New Republic, Jonathan Cohn makes an important point: people resent paying taxes when they don’t see what that money is buying. I’ve made that same argument in the local context, and it is actually easier to see what our local money buys: police and fire protection, garbage collection, parks, schools and the like. Those local public goods are more visible than the goods our federal taxes purchase.
That payroll tax taken out of everybody’s check? It’s buying you Medicare and Social Security, which means a more secure retirement free of crippling medical bills. Your federal income tax? Its effects are a lot more diffuse. But chances are pretty good that you’ve already used some infrastructure today—whether it was a road or railway you took to work, or maybe the information technology connections you’re using to read this article. Federal, state, and local taxes helped pay for that. Is your water and air clean? Are you safe from threats, domestic and foreign? Then you’re getting something valuable from the Environment Protection Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Defense. Your tax dollars paid for those, too.
Sometimes, of course, your tax dollars pay for supports and services you won’t use. And you might resent that. But even taxes that pay for someone else’s benefits can benefit you. Why does the U.S. not have the massive underclass that characterizes many third-world countries—or the incipient danger of violent upheaval that accompanies it? The safety net your taxes purchased, tattered as it is, buys a degree of social harmony, too.
We can legitimately argue about lawmakers’ priorities. We can–and should–monitor government at all levels to insure that its operations are businesslike and efficient. We can debate whether government should do some things at all.
But while we are griping and doing everything we can to reduce our bills, we should take note of Cohn’s admonition, and remember that our tax dollars buy a lot of things that most of us agree–however grudgingly– make our lives safer and better. Things we would miss.
In the private sector, we acknowledge the truth of the old adage: you get what you pay for. Somehow, we ignore that homely truth when it comes to taxes.