This 1996 op-ed, originally published in The Washington Post, is as timely as ever.
I learn a lot watching C-SPAN. The other night, one of Washington’s leading economists was asked about using the tax system to help reduce environmental damage. The response? It certainly would be difficult, because it would increase the `tax burden.’
`Tax burden’ is a phrase with which we are all so familiar that we don’t stop to think what it means–nor what it implies. At first blush it seems value-free. But plainly a `burden’ is something to be lifted. We don’t refer to the monies we spend on movies, popcorn, milk or shoes as `burdens.’ We refer to them–and think of them–as expenditures, some (movies and popcorn) optional, others (food, shoes) necessary. We don’t speak of our `consumption burden.’ Why, then, a `tax burden’?
Is it that our tax payments are not optional but our food expenditures are? That can’t be it: We have to buy food. We can choose between steak and hamburger (or yogurt and tofu), but we can’t choose between eating and starving. Indeed, the penalty for not eating far exceeds the penalty for nonpayment of taxes. yet we do not speak of the `food burden.’
More likely, we think of taxes as a burden because we’re not quite certain what it is we’re buying when we pay them. We miss, somehow, the connection between our tax dollars and the fire protection, the highways, the security against foreign powers and the biomedical research that our dollars buy. The problem is that few of the benefits we derive can be seen, touched or smelled. Moreover, the benefits we derive from government expenditures most often accrue to everyone; they do not come packaged in discrete units–this box of defense for me, this piece of highway for you.
And many of us assume that we’d continue to get whatever it is we’re getting from government even if we didn’t pay our taxes. Without spending our dollars, we’d have no milk on our tables, but we can’t really imagine that schools and roads would disappear if you and I didn’t buy them with our tax dollars. Clearly, government doesn’t determine how many potholes to fill only after it deposits our tax dollars. If I don’t buy that book, that restaurant meal, that aspirin–or if I cheat on my taxes–does government really subtract from the pothole-fixing budget or the salaries of judges? That’s a tough connection to make–but without that connection, my taxes come to seem irrelevant, hence unnecessary, hence a `burden.’
Of course, no government program would suffer if you or I consumed less (and thus paid less in sales tax) or if I cheated on my return (and thus paid less in income tax). But if you and I both underpaid, everyone else would have to pay more. And it surely stretches language beyond acceptable usage to call not taking advantage of one’s neighbors a `burden.’
Burdens are by definition oppressive, and our facile use of the term in connection with our taxes thereby encourages us to do everything we can (within the law) to ease them. Cheating on our taxes comes to seem acceptable (at least understandable), even though tax evasion is precisely analogous to shoplifting. If we take fire protection, guarantees on educational loans, clean air and water but fail to pay for them, we are stealing.
Our language shapes our attitudes. To weigh appropriate tax and expenditure policies in difficult when our language encourages us to think of our taxes as burdens not connected to the benefits we derive from them.
Some weeks ago, I received a brochure encouraging me to open an IRA. In that brochure, a 1040 tax return was labeled `pain,’ while the application for an IRA was labeled `pain killer.’ By implication, taxes (like pain) are to be avoided. By implication, I can continue to enjoy the benefits of government expenditures without paying for them.
We can debate `value for money,’ the wisdom of particular government policies, programs and expenditures. We can argue as to whether we’re spending too much here, not enough there. But that debate is distorted if we enter it with the view that any government expenditure–which means my tax dollar–is inherently burdensome.
I feel as I do because I remember what Justice Holmes wrote in 1904: `Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society’ and what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in 1936, `Taxes, after all, are the dues that we pay for the privileges of membership in an organized society.’
Now, at century’s end, our economists tell us taxes are a burden, and our pension funds tell us taxes are a pain. Is it any wonder that our leaders vie to reduce the burden and the pain, even if in so doing our society becomes somewhat less organized and less civilized?