Tax Day

Apropos of my previous post, Tax Day is soon upon us. It’s a national day of kvetching, or at least of hearing friends and family kvetch about paying taxes.

I understand where they’re coming from. Hearing that you have to pay, or already paid, thousands of dollars to the government might turn your stomach. “Who the hell is the government to take my money?!,” I imagine them shouting. They fume that it’s especially infuriating to think about all the people receiving government benefits who pay no income taxes.

Conservative organizations have spent decades fanning the flames of frustration into roaring resentment. Some have gone so far as to argue that “taxation is theft.” Slashing taxes has been the conservative cri de coeur for generations and is probably a main reason why many of them received the recent tax cuts so enthusiastically. (It turns out those cuts may drive deficits to historic levels.)

There are at least two objections underwriting this resistance to taxation: 1) a fairness objection, and 2) a liberty objection. The fairness objection takes issue with our current progressive tax system and its aim of producing more equal outcomes in the distribution of goods, generally referred to as distributive justice. The fairness objection can take a principled or a substantive form. According to the principled form, it’s unfair to ask some to pay more proportionally than others in taxes. Period. The substantive form doesn’t object in principle to paying more. It does, however, take issue with the particular amount being demanded. The liberty objection takes issue with forced taxation. According to this objection, people should be free to give or not as they see fit to whom or whatever they deem worthy. This objection assumes that what people earn through their labor is due only to them and that therefore no one else has a legitimate claim to the fruits of their labor.

Responding to the fairness objection in either its principled or substantive forms would merely rehash old, time-consuming debates about distributive justice or get into the policy weeds. Instead, I’m going to respond to the liberty objection because I think there is something deeply wrong about its assumptions.

The liberty objection is based on a poor understanding of our social practices and relations. It assumes we’re atomistic individuals, free-floating monads unencumbered by debts and duties we didn’t voluntarily choose. But this is misleading.

We’re social beings who only become responsible individuals through the resources our sociality affords us. Furthermore, the minute we’re born we’re indebted to others. Thomas Aquinas thought piety was related to justice. Whereas the latter regulated relations among equals, the former regulated asymmetric relations. Because justice gives to each his due, and you can’t repay your parents for your life, you instead repay them with your piety. According to Aquinas, piety was directed toward God (religion), parents (filial piety), and one’s people or country (patriotic piety) because they’re the sources of our existence and progress through life. Because our debt to them is so great, we can never fully repay them; we’ll never have a zero balance in relation to them. Figuring out what each is due according to piety, of course, isn’t easy and requires situated and contextually-sensitive judgment. Not all parents or countries, for example, are owed the same thing in the same amount. Getting piety right, like getting justice right, is hard work.

This way of thinking is already a richer, fuller account of social relations than that assumed by the liberty objection. Acknowledging the licitness of debts and duties we didn’t voluntarily undertake dispels shallow notions of merit undergirding the liberty objection. What natural endowments and external goods we possess, we possess by virtue of God, parents, and country. What we’re able to earn by them, we’re able to earn because of them. And here is where taxation relates to common goods.

Common goods allow us to develop our natural endowments so that they’re personally and socially beneficial. God gave us the Earth and all its resources. Our parents gave us life, love, food, and shelter. Our country has given us language, schools, government, etc. We are who we are and have what we have on account of them. This then places obligations on us, the beneficiaries, to give back in some way. As I said above, you can’t fully repay your debts. How do you repay someone or some group for your existence? It can’t be done. But you can offer God your worship and obedience. Perhaps this requires good stewardship of all God has given you and a willingness to share of your gifts with others in need. You can honor your parents by, perhaps, caring for them in their old age. You can offer your country patriotism through contributions of your time and finances. In some ways, piety isn’t merely backward looking. It’s not limited to repaying those from whom you’ve received something. It’s also about paying those benefits forward to future generations, so that they, too, might develop and flourish.

Importantly, what I’ve argued up to now isn’t limited to theists. The notion that we are who we are by virtue of circumstances beyond our control has been powerfully articulated by secular philosophers under the heading of “the lottery of birth.” So, invoking Aquinas’ argument shouldn’t be a stumbling block for non-Christians. Both strands of thought can be seen as developing similar intuitions.

Remember as Tax Day rolls around that you’re helping to provide for roads, parks, schools, police, fire fighters, courts, universities, and much more. These are goods we hold in common, from which we have received much and to which we ought to contribute. When we fail to do so, we let down those who came before us and those who will come after us.

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