Taxes are Good

Most conservative criticisms about the ill-effects of taxes are exaggerated or untrue. Taxes are in fact good -- they are dues we pay to enjoy the numerous vital benefits that government provides for our society.

Are taxes bad? If you've been listening to conservatives for the last several decades, you would certainly think so. Virtually every Republican candidate for office in recent memory has run on an anti-tax platform – arguing that Americans are overtaxed, that taxes hurt economic growth, etc. And it is this hatred of taxes that helped propel the passage of hundreds of billions of dollars of tax cuts during the administration of George W. Bush.

This anti-tax campaign strikes a real emotional chord in some Americans and it has been one of the most effective rallying cries of anti-government conservatives. It taps into a taxophobia that is deeply ingrained in American political culture and that manifests itself in the activities of over 800 local and state anti-tax groups. These tax-haters have also been playing a large part in organizing the grassroots Tea Party movement.

But conservatives are dead wrong about taxes. Taxes are not bad.

Taxes are good.

The argument for taxes is a very straightforward one: if government is on balance a very positive force in society, then taxes are good. If what we have seen in other articles on this website is true – that government programs help us all in myriad ways every day, that most government programs are working effectively to solve our social problems, and that government is the only way to promote important values like justice and economic security – then the taxes needed to support these government activities should be seen as a positive good. To put it another way, you can’t support the things the government does – like caring for the elderly, establishing justice, providing public education, fighting terrorism, and protecting the environment – and still maintain that the taxes that support those things are bad. Taxes are the lifeblood of government and so if government is basically good, then so are taxes.

So instead of seeing paying taxes as analogous to being mugged by the government, we ought to think of these payments more like the tithing that many people do in their churches and synagogues. Most people see these regular donations as a charitable contribution to the good works being done by these religious organizations – and they certainly don’t resent these contributions. But if the government is also an institution dedicated in large part to doing good works – to promoting the public interest – then we should not resent our taxes contributing to those governmental activities. In fact, we should feel good about all the good our tax dollars are doing – just as we feel good about all the good our religious donations do. Of course it could be argued that there is a big difference here – that giving money to churches is voluntary and we are required to pay taxes. But in practice, many religious organizations require members who can afford it to contribute regularly – payments that are really more like mandatory dues than purely voluntary donations. In any case, the point is that contributing toward an organization that is promoting the public good should not be seen as a bad thing.

But of course anti-government conservatives have been very successful at “framing” taxes in a negative way. As linguist George Lakoff has explained, part of their strategy has involved a careful choice of the words they use to talk about taxes.

Conservatives have worked for decades to establish the metaphors of taxation as a burden, an affliction, and an unfair punishment – all of which require "relief." … And on the day that George W. Bush took office, the words tax relief started appearing in White House communiqués to the press and in official speeches and reports by conservatives. …The word relief evokes a frame in which there is a blameless Afflicted Person who we identify with and who has some Affliction, some pain or harm that is imposed by some external Cause-of-pain. Relief is the taking away of the pain or harm, and it is brought about by some Reliever-of-pain. … The term tax relief evokes all of this and more. Taxes, in this phrase, are the Affliction (the Crime), proponents of taxes are the Causes-of Affliction (the Villains), the taxpayer is the Afflicted Victim, and the proponents of "tax relief" are the Heroes who deserve the taxpayers' gratitude. Every time the phrase tax relief is used and heard or read by millions of people, the more this view of taxation as an affliction and conservatives as heroes gets reinforced.1


As Lakoff explains, the Democrats have inadvertently played into this process of demonizing taxes whenever they supported tax cuts and used the term “tax relief.” In 2004, for example, in John Kerry’s campaign for president, he talked often about enacting tax relief for the middle class, instead of for the rich. In his 2008 campaign, Barak Obama also thought it was necessary to offer tax cuts to the lower and middle classes, and he then went on to include billions of dollars of this kind of "tax relief" in his first budget. And while Kerry and Obama probably thought their proposals were progressive, they ended up reinforcing a very regressive conservative message that taxes are an unfair burden on most Americans.

Lakoff argues that we need to promote a very different view of taxes—one that uses a very different kind of metaphor. The metaphor he suggests is that of taxes as “dues”.

Taxes are our dues — we pay our dues to be Americans and enjoy the benefits of American society. Taxes are what we pay to live in a civilized society that is democratic, offers opportunity, and has a huge infrastructure available to all citizens. This incredible infrastructure has been paid for by previous taxpayers. Roads and highways, the Internet, the broadcast airwaves, our public education system, our power grid — every day we all use this vast infrastructure. Our dues maintain it.2

It is about being a member, a part of the community. People pay a membership fee to join a gym, the local YMCA, or a club for which they get to use the basketball courts, the swimming pool, and the golf course. They did not pay for these facilities with their own memberships. They were built and paid for by other members, and all the current members maintain them with their dues. It is the same thing with our country — being a member in good standing of a remarkable nation. Americans pay their dues.

This idea of taxes as dues is not original to Lakoff. It is an idea that has often been expressed, but has not been promoted with the same ferocity or persistence of the taxes-as-affliction metaphor. Franklin Delano Roosevelt once remarked that “Taxes, after all, are dues that we pay for the privileges of membership in an organized society.” And Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. expressed a similar sentiment when he said that “I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization."

Photo: Sign of the times.

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