Oakton, Va. — It's early April, which means these are the few days of the year when Americans of almost every political stripe unite in a perennial ritual: complaining about taxes.
Count me out. I'm happy to pay my fair share to the government. It's part of my patriotic duty – and it's a heckuva bargain.
"Taxes are what we pay for living in a civilized society." Those words are written in stone, so they must be true. They're there to read for anyone who bothers to look up as they stroll past those New Deal-era government buildings on Constitution Avenue in the nation's capital.
They are the words of former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Now there was a man! A patriotic taxpayer, not one of those chest thumpers who paper their cars with chauvinistic bumper stickers and grumble about supporting the government of the country they profess to love.
Before ascending to the court, Holmes served his country during the Civil War in places with names that still raise goose bumps: The Peninsula Campaign, Balls Bluff, Antietam, and Fredericksburg, where he nearly lost his life. When he finally died in 1935, Justice Holmes gave his residuary estate to the government in gratitude!
Now there's a man who truly understood patriotism in all its complexities. One facet requires citizens to pay up on April 15 because taxes are what citizens pay for necessary services.
Paying taxes is an exercise of civic virtue akin to supporting one's country in time of war. Paying taxes is a conjoined twin of voting. When my wife and I emerge from our polling place on Election Day, I feel patriotic and virtuous. I am keeping my bargain with the Founding Fathers, affirming the privilege of being an American. It is a right that has roots stretching back to Magna Carta in 1215.
I feel the same about taxes, paying my fair share to the republic. It affirms I am willing to share the burdens of the government that protects me.
Federal income taxes are a terrific bargain in America. I like to tell my tax-grumbling friends about my last year in Israel, when the Knesset passed a new tax code that would've seized 70 percent of my income. When I lived in Berlin, my tax rate was 50 percent, and when I left England three years ago I was paying a 40 percent rate to support a gilded monarchy and a national healthcare system that did not function very well. The only place I ever lived overseas and did not have to pay more than token taxes was the Soviet Union. There you got what you paid for. Only Moscow had potable drinking water and it was dodgy during spring runoff.
There seems to be an inconsistency about people who insist on wearing flag pins in their lapels, but who grumble about paying taxes. My friends grouse about government as though they had minimal financial or moral obligation to support it. Are they not part of "We the people"?
I never calculated how much I paid in taxes over a working lifetime, but I began when I was picking blueberries in Maine in 1954, so it must have been a lot – an awful lot. I am rather proud of my contribution to the US Treasury over a half century. My Social Security taxes have helped soften the blow of old age for many of the World War II and Korean War veterans. I hope my federal income taxes made the lives of woefully underpaid schoolteachers just a little more comfortable, helping with their Medicare or Medicaid bills.
Sure, there are things I would rather not pay for. I am not keen about farm subsidies to huge agribusiness concerns that are already as rich as Croesus. But democracy is the art of compromise, and Andrew Jackson was correct when he said, "The wisdom of man never yet contrived a system of taxation that would operate with perfect equality." Yes, professional tax planning can lead to adroit tax evasion. But reluctance to pay one's fair share flouts "the better angels of our nature." Genuine patriots don't complain about their patriotic obligations.
And oh, by the way, the words carved in stone on that federal building are at 1111 Constitution Avenue. It's the headquarters of the Internal Revenue Service. Pay up and be grateful!