What made taxes taboo?

The original Tea Party was less concerned about taxation than representation. We've got representatives now -- but they pay a price if they propose new taxes.

Ann Hermes/Staff
IRS office in the JFK Federal Building, Boston.

It must have been a huge relief when the first potentate decided that rather than grabbing whatever he pleased from his subjects – their homes, their money, their crops – he would institute a tax. Think how humane it seemed: The government gets one-fifth. You keep four-fifths. Nobody gets hurt. That was progress in its day. You can look it up in Genesis 47:24.

A few dozen centuries went by. Despots weren’t as absolute as they once were, but the taxman still cometh. Opulent palaces and Fabergé eggs don’t grow on trees.

Then along came “We the People,” the subversive idea that government starts with us and works for us. We earn the money. We decide how much we give to the common good and what it pays for. It’s worth noting that the original Tea Party, while not wild about taxes, was more concerned about being represented.

With the new system came new issues: over how much money we should contribute and where it should be spent. I like bridges, you like bombers. I’m loaded, you’re scrounging for quarters. For 224 years we’ve been wrestling with taxing and spending. Could I propose that we continue this debate by disregarding the extremes?

Does any person anchored in the real world believe there should be no taxes? Does anybody who believes in liberty want every dollar taken? The honest argument is in the middle – whether a top, marginal income-tax rate of 35 is too high or too low. Whether corporations are paying their fair share. Whether all those receipts we collect and forms we fill out this time of year are necessary or whether a flat tax would be better.

The next 100,000 questions involve where that money should be spent. If you are American, the agreement back when we wrote “We the People” was that that would be the work of our representatives. That’s another one you can look up: Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution.

To get elected, representatives these days find that they have to pledge not to raise taxes (check out this Monitor special report on why that is). Taxes have, in effect, become toxic. Maybe they should be. Maybe there’s plenty of money being collected to pay for government activities. If that’s the case, then something’s gotta give with the federal budget: bombers or bridges? School lunches or biofuel subsidies?

These are tough questions to hammer out, so tough that they haven’t been hammered out. Instead, our representatives have borrowed to close the gap. That lets them keep the pledge and not cut, see? But now we’ve reached an unsafe level of debt.

There are three ways forward: deep cuts, higher taxes, or muddling through. We’d all like to muddle through, but the deficit is so deep we probably can’t do that. And if you take higher taxes off the table, that leaves cutting.

So let’s talk about cutting for a minute – not specific cuts, but the idea of cutting. There is always waste, fraud, and abuse. Cutting can be a useful discipline. But cuts that go too deep run risks beyond just unhappy former workers or penniless grant recipients. If you cut to nothing, all you’ll have is nothing. Life and most of the things we value cost something.

Long ago, We the People agreed that, among other things, we would “promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Deeper debt doesn’t help our posterity. So we’ve got to get taxes and spending right.

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