“Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society,” said Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
Liberal politicians, special-interest groups and writers love this quote, which is inscribed on their favorite Washington building, the headquarters of the IRS.
As I say every year in various venues during Tax Month: Justice Holmes said this in a speech in 1904. He repeated it in a court decision in 1927. There was no federal or state income tax in 1904. The 16th Amendment was ratified in 1913, and by 1927 the federal rate was 1.5 percent on incomes up to $52,780 (inflation-adjusted). The really rich paid 7 percent.
Today the rate for a single person making $11,000 is 15 percent; the richer have paid much higher rates over the years. Massachusetts had no state income tax until 1916, no sales tax until 1966; when the sales tax was passed it was 3 percent, intended to lower property taxes. Now the state income tax rate is 5.25 percent, the sales tax 6.25 percent. Property taxes were finally limited by Proposition 2 ½ but are still high.
So what does this all have to do with a civilized society?
It’s not as easy as I thought to find a definition of civilization. I found this at an online dictionary: “an advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture, science, industry, and government has been reached.”
No, that can’t be right. Except for science, can we honestly state that any of these categories are at a higher level than they were in 1904 or 1927? I suppose it’s not fair to point out that after the income tax was passed, we participated in two terrible world wars, both started by a country that also had taxes; in between, we endured the Great Depression. “Culture” that ranged from opera to folk tunes now includes reality TV, rap and grunge. Government? By definition, the phrase “high level” probably hasn’t applied since the short reign of King Solon in Greece, 594 BC.
So let’s move on to “A Freeman’s Effort to Disprove Today’s Most Mindless Slogans”, by libertarian Paul Rosenberg: “People pay taxes in non-civilized places too. Any time anyone can make himself boss, he takes a cut of everything he can ... Communist China had an effective rate that approached 100 percent under Mao. Were they the most civilized society that ever existed?
“... Is the United States ten times more civilized that it was a hundred years ago? Have the crime rates really fallen by 90 percent? Well, we’re paying about ten times as much in taxes ...”
For some reason this question makes me think of the most horrible thing I’ve read lately. On March 21, two teenagers in Georgia attempted to rob a woman pushing her baby in a stroller, mid-morning in a nice neighborhood. When she said she didn’t have any money, they shot her in the leg, then fatally shot her 13-month old baby in the face. It’s being called “a malice killing.” That is as far removed from civilization as you can get.
The news does carry many stories about adults abusing or killing their own children; civilized people don’t do this, any more than they sacrifice children to the gods though come to think of it, we do refer to the “Mayan civilization.” The Mayans had taxes, they also had slaves, and some experts believe that their civilization ended when they wrecked their environment.
I’m going back to my personal grade-school Webster’s Dictionary, which defines civilized as “reclaimed from a savage state”, which isn’t quite so ambitious as “high level.”
I don’t think it’s civilized to be piling up trillions in debt for future generations, which won’t be able to tax themselves enough to cover that and ongoing basic “civilization” spending. We are allowing much of our infrastructure to deteriorate as our politicians set the wrong priorities. We can’t tax ourselves enough right now, either, to cover billions in unexamined welfare spending, services for illegal immigrants, and one war after another, without overburdening our economy. Our prisons are full, our ethics empty. I doubt that despite billions spent on education, our young people are learning to be more civilized than their grandparents. The true mark of a civilized society is personal responsibility: Where did it go?
I’ve done my taxes, am awaiting my refund, but many others this week are still completing the paperwork to comply with 7,000 pages of federal tax code, more than Justice Holmes could possibly have envisioned in 1913, when there were 400 pages. There is nothing civilized about the incomprehensible tangle of loopholes created by politicians working in concert with lobbyists.
We know that taxes are the price we pay for not going to jail for nonpayment of taxes. Let’s at least try to get through April 15 without some mindless tax-hiker lecturing us about the price of alleged civilization.
Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation and a regular contributor to the opinion pages.