I really enjoyed Jon Cohn’s paean to taxes yesterday.  Sure everybody likes money, but the fact that we all contribute through taxes (very, very few people fail to contribute over the long term and there’s always sales and property taxes) is what makes effective self government possible.  Cohn:

Sure, there are plenty of principled, intellectually honest reasons to think taxes should be lower. But one reason for the rage against them—and the perception that they are larcenously high—is that the act of paying them is so divorced from the act of receiving the benefits that they finance. You might not like paying a lot for groceries, clothing, a car, or a house. But it feels a lot better because, once you’re done with the transaction, you know what you’re getting for it. You’ve taken care of a basic need—there’s food on your plate, a roof over your head, and, if you’re lucky and can afford it, a Camaro in your driveway.

Taxes do the same thing. That payroll tax taken out of everybody’s check? It’s buying you Medicare and Social Security, which means a more secure retirement free of crippling medical bills. Your federal income tax? Its effects are a lot more diffuse. But chances are pretty good that you’ve already used some infrastructure today—whether it was a road or railway you took to work, or maybe the information technology connections you’re using to read this article. Federal, state, and local taxes helped pay for that. Is your water and air clean? Are you safe from threats, domestic and foreign? Then you’re getting something valuable from the Environment Protection Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Defense. Your tax dollars paid for those, too.

Sometimes, of course, your tax dollars pay for supports and services you won’t use. And you might resent that. But even taxes that pay for someone else’s benefits can benefit you. Why does the U.S. not have the massive underclass that characterizes many third-world countries—or the incipient danger of violent upheaval that accompanies it? The safety net your taxes purchased, tattered as it is, buys a degree of social harmony, too.

On a mostly unrelated note, it’s depressing, disturbing, and sadly unsurprising to learn how TurboTax is actually making it harder for us to pay our taxes because that helps their business model.  Ugh.  Any why are politicians listening and preventing an obviously better system?  Mostly, it’s client politics– a narrow interest serves to hugely benefit, so they fight like hell for it, whereas the rest of us pay the costs, but they are not all that great and spread across all taxpayers.  A more sensible system would directly benefit a great many of us and save the federal government a bit of money, but alas, the narrow, moneyed interest has won the day.  And, it doesn’t help that anti-tax zealots like Grover Norquist want to make taxes as painful as possible.  Just another sad story of how American politics really works.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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