Some thoughts about that annual American rite of paying taxes

Have you made out your income tax? You are supposed to add your bit to the estimated $285 billion that 96 million Americans will contribute by the April 15 deadline.

Do you dislike it? You are supported by Justice Stephen Johnson Field of the US Supreme Court who, in 1894, found the whole idea dangerous and loathsome.

There had been an income tax to help pay for the Civil War; then Congress under President Grover Cleveland proposed to make it permanent. Congress asked for a tax of 2 percent on incomes over $4,000. Such rates shocked many. The Supreme Court threw it out, 5 to 4.

In the case Pollack v. Farmers Loan & Trust Company, Justice Field, who had been appointed to the high court by Abraham Lincoln, warned of the menace of encroaching government:

''The present assault upon capital is but the beginning. It will be but the stepping stone to others, larger and more sweeping, till our political contests will become a war of the poor against the rich. . . .''

Eighty-nine years later, where are we now? Eyeball to eyeball with Form 1040.

Back in 1913 the states finished work on the 16th Amendment. Its words cracked like a whiplash:

''The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without appointment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.''

Since then the progressive income tax has grown. Earlier this century, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called taxes the price ''we pay for civilized society.''

But the government allows states and localities to issue tax-free bonds. Congress encourages social objectives by tax concessions: exemption of interest on home mortgages, individual retirement accounts, and oil depletion allowances to encourage oil exploration are some examples.

America has boasted of reliance on citizens to calculate their own enormous amounts of income taxes.

Recently, however, questions have increased. The organization Public Citizen Inc. on March 7 complained of ''The Tax Shelter Artists: Making Money off Our Misery.'' Time magazine in a cover story March 13 headed it: ''Tax Cheating: Bad and Getting Worse,'' and ran a detailed story.

Taxes that unjust people don't pay must be made up by the just people. Tests indicate the gap is big and widening. It is so large it has a name, ''the underground economy.'' By one estimate it involves a quarter of the work force and 15 percent of the gross national product.

What to do? There seems no precise answer. European nations often fall back on sales taxes and, in particular, the new VAT, or value-added tax. This is a largely self-administered and concealed sales tax to which each segment of manufacturing adds as the process continues, giving each an inducement to police those coming before it.

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