On the Morality of Taxes

The unexamined life is not worth living. 

Socrates, in Plato, Dialogues, Apology

Socrates, a Greek philosopher in Athens, lived from about 469 BC to 399 BC.

As we grow up, we acquire numerous assumptions.  Some of these assumptions are taught to us and presented as factual.  Many we acquire from the example of authority figures, and some we accept because of the example of our peers.  As we acquire assumptions from those in authority and our friends, we have a choice.  We can conform and accept what appears to be the norm, or we can examine each assumption in turn.  We challenge our assumptions by asking seemingly simple questions.

Taxes are something we all pay.   By now, most of you will have received your W2 – Wage and Tax Statement for 2006.  Each of you will no doubt note the amount of money the government has withheld for Federal and state income taxes, Social Security, and Medicare.  Some of you may even stop to consider that your Social  Security and Medicare payments are really twice what is shown.  That is, the money your employer paid the government might have been paid to you.  From your employer’s perspective, these taxes too are part of the cost of your employment.  Few, however, will question the assumption that we must pay taxes.

Why do we pay taxes?  Why are death and taxes the only certainties in life?   Death we cannot change, but taxes?  Why not taxes?  We pay taxes to provide revenues needed to finance our government, an invention of man, not God.  If government is our own creation, why is government an unavoidable necessity?  As a predator, man is the greatest plague to man; we must have some means to protect ourselves from each other.  So we created government, and the primary role of government is to protect our rights — from each other.  To protect ourselves from each other, we pay taxes.

Early governments were primarily about the resolution of disputes between two or more people.  In addition, a tribal government protected the tribe and its territories from other tribes.  Early governments arose from the realization that two or more weaker men could combine forces to take down a big bully.  Sadly, any invention of man can and will be perverted.  Thus history is replete with tales of how government itself can become a bully far more horrendous than any single individual.  The experiences of the last century, in particular, should have taught us to be wary of government.  Have they?

If government is about protecting our rights, why do we need taxes?  The men and women who operate our government need resources to do their work and they need wages to live on.  So we raise revenues from the People to support the work of government, and over the millennia various schemes have been devised to make revenue collection efficient and palatable. In our own era, the art of tax collection has perhaps reached its zenith.  Unlike previous eras, such as in biblical times, tax collectors are respected.  Yet at same time, tax collections are larger than ever, both in total revenues and in the percentage of income taken from each citizen.  Is that truly a good thing?

What is the moral justification for collecting taxes from the People?  Obviously, some people do not want to pay their “fair share.”  What is a “fair share” of taxes?  Is it right to throw people in jail when they do not want to pay their fair share?

We justify taxes and the powers we give to government by showing that the rights of the People are greater because of the government and the taxes needed to sustain it.  Thus whenever the government operates a program and needs taxes to sustain it, we must consider four questions:

  1. Does this program serve the same people who pay for it?
  2. Does this program result in greater rights for the People?
  3. Is it necessary for the government to operate this program?
  4. Are we using the right kind of tax?

Does this program serve the same people who pay for it?

When we can be pitted against each other, we can be divided and conquered, and such is the method of conquerors.  They pit race against race, religion against religion,  rich against poor, old against young, and so forth.  So long as people identify themselves as part of a group and can be persuaded that their interests are of greater importance, they can be used by ambitious people.  When the government gets in the habit of taking from one group and giving to another, we have set aside our scruples, and we can be tempted to plead for share. 

We each tend to regard ourselves as our own favorite charity.  Without much thought, we put our interests before others.  Yet this is a devil’s trap.  We are commanded to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  If the purpose is to empty one person’s pocket just to fill another’s, can the tax that does this be morally justified?  Would you be willing to throw someone in jail for not paying it?

For example, payroll taxes such as Social Security and Medicare taxes extort money from the young for the benefit of the old (here, here, here, and here).  Instead of charity, we call these programs retirement programs; yet if they were not forced, no one would participate in these programs.  At best we are forcing people into a business arrangement they would not choose for themselves.  Thus, the old who vote, sponge off the young, who vote in lower numbers.

Does this program result in greater rights for the People? 

When we talk about rights, we are talking about two things:  the right to be left in peace and the right to make our own choices.  On the theory that one person’s rights ends where another’s begin, government protects everyone’s rights by restricting everyone’s rights.  Hence, even though each of us has the freedom to speak our minds, we are not allowed to scream “fire” in a crowded theatre when there is no fire.

Ideally government prohibits people from doing those things that would be more hurtful to others than it would be helpful to the person doing it.  For example, while it might be exhilarating to speed down a crowded highway, it is not legal to do so. 

On the other hand, the government’s role is sometimes more prescriptive.  Eminent domain, for example, is justified when private property rights might be abused.  In order to allow people to transit an area and trade freely, we use eminent domain to establish a right-of-way for vehicular traffic.  Similarly, we establish easements on private property for utility lines and foot traffic.

Eventually, however, as we give the government more tasks, we can lose sight of the distinction between protecting people’s rights and implementing a Utopian social programs.  At that point we must ask the question:  is financing this program so important, we should send someone to jail if they refuse to pay up. 

When we use government to force Utopian ideals on others, we neglect a fundamental moral issue.  We have no right to force our fellow citizens to adopt our charitable causes.  So long as they do not trespass on the rights of others, our fellow citizens have the right to disagree and live as they wish.

Is it necessary for the government to operate this program?

Wherever a program is run by the government, it acquires the characteristics of a monopoly.  Worse, whether you like it or not, you may be forced to pay for it.  Consider, for example, our public education system.  Because we send children to “free” public schools, our government chooses the location of the school, the teachers, and the content of the curriculum.  Even we elect not to send our child to a government-run school, we still pay taxes to support the public school system.

Nevertheless, even with such an arrangement, many parents decide to either home-school their children or send their children to private schools.  Thus private schools, even in the face of such overbearing competition, have demonstrated the ability to educate children.  Even home-school children do well.  Given that government-run schools deprive parents of the right educate their children as the wish, why do we need government-run schools?  Is it right to send someone to jail for refusing to pay a tax to operate government-run schools?  When parents pay to educate their own children, should they be forced to pay twice to educate the children of others, particularly when government-run schools cost more to operate?

Are we using the right kind of tax?

Taxes come in many forms.  We have sales taxes, income taxes, capital gains taxes, head taxes, and so forth.  One of the most just taxes, I think, is the user fee.  A user fee puts the person who uses a government service in the position of paying for that service. 

An example of a user fee is a toll.  If you travel on a toll road, you pay for it.  Conversely, if you do not use the road, you do not pay.  Currently, much of the tax money from Northern Virginia is being used to pay for roads elsewhere in the state of Virginia.  When we need better roads, we in Northern Virginia are paying for roads elsewhere.   In addition to reducing the possibility that resources would be so misallocated, paying for road construction by using tolls would be much more just to all concerned. 

For other perspectives on the morality of taxes, read this, this, this, and this.


Chip Bok’s cartoons can be viewed here.

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