“Taxes are what we
pay for a civilized society.”
— Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
special-interest groups and writers love this quote, which is
inscribed on their favorite Washington, D.C., 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
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 2½ but are still
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
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. Anytime 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
10 times more civilized that it was a hundred years ago? Have the
crime rates really fallen by 90 percent? Well, we’re paying about 10
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, midmorning 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.”
You may not have heard
about this: The teenagers were black, the mother is white; if she
were black and the teenagers white, this would be all over the
national news, like the Trayvon Martin case. Regardless, the
shooting of the baby is as far removed from civilization as you can
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.