Tuesday, April 15, 2008


This morning, I walked down to the corner, put my children onto their school bus, and then made a quick stop at the mailbox. In my hand were three envelopes containing checks to the Internal Revenue Service, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the city of Philadelphia. I don't want to sound hokey, but I feel a sense of pride every April 15. I am fulfilling one of the central responsibilties of citizenship. My checks will provide some of the funds to pay for my children's trip to school (part of the way on a road that is being rebuilt with federal funds). And more importantly, my modest tax payments will help other people's children, and their parents, and grandparents too.

For those of us who groan and moan that our tax dollars are being wasted, watch this classic scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Even if our tax dollars are sometimes wasted or misdirected, it’s time to talk about what our local, state, and federal governments are doing right. What has Uncle Sam ever done for us? Social Security. OK, but other than Social Security? Subsidized medical research...OK, but other than subsidized medical and scientific research and Social Security? Well we have the National Park system. Other than Social Security, medical research, and National Parks? Well you get the idea. I could go on.

It will forever bar me from running for political office to say this: We don’t pay enough. Our infrastructure is collapsing. Our schools, especially those in inner cities and declining Rustbelt towns, are struggling with budget cutbacks when they need more to recruit and retain teachers and serve some of the country’s most disadvantaged students. Our public transportation systems deliver a lot, especially given how underfunded they are, but for those of us who depend on regional rail and Amtrak, the consequences of funding cuts have been devastating. And, yes, the National Institute for Mental Health and the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes for Medicine underwrite a lot of critical research. But we’ve allowed too much of our scientific and medical agendas to be dictated by the private sector. And don’t get me going about what our taxes aren’t going to, including an inclusive health care system, better environmental and workplace safety regulation, and urban redevelopment.

It is a cliche to say that anti-tax sentiment as an essential part of the American political tradition. It is, but not in the way that we usually think. American Revolutionaries railed against “taxation without representation.” We pay a lot of attention to the first word, but not as much to the second two. The protestors who joined the Boston Tea Party didn’t throw the principle of taxation into Boston Harbor. They demanded more democracy, the freedom to determine the fair rates of taxation and the uses to which tax dollars would be put.

Berkeley historian Robin Einhorn has written a brilliant study of the origins of Americans’ aversion to high taxes. I recommend reading her book, American Taxation, American Slavery. Here are some of her insights:

Americans are right to think that our antitax and antigovernment attitudes have deep historical roots. Our mistake is to dig for them in Boston. We should be digging in Virginia and South Carolina rather than in Massachusetts or Pennsylvania, because the origins of these attitudes have more to do with the history of American slavery than the history of American freedom. They have more to do with protections for entrenched wealth than with promises of opportunity, and more to do with the demands of privileged elites than with the strivings of the common man. Instead of reflecting a heritage that valued liberty over all other concerns, they are part of the poisonous legacy we have inherited from the slaveholders who forged much of our political tradition.

America's anti-tax tradition, she argues, is one of slavery's many strange fruits.

[S]laveholders had different priorities than other people—and special reasons to be afraid of taxes. Slaveholders had little need for transportation improvements (since their land was often already on good transportation links such as rivers) and hardly any interest in an educated workforce (it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write because slaveholders thought education would help African Americans seize their freedom). Slaveholders wanted the military, not least to promote the westward expansion of slavery, and they also wanted local police forces ("slave patrols") to protect them against rebellious slaves. They wanted all manner of government action to protect slavery, while they tended to dismiss everything else as wasteful government spending.

Her sobering conclusion:

The irony is that the slaveholding elites of early American history have come down to us as the champions of liberty and democracy. In a political campaign whose audacity we can only admire, charismatic slaveholders persuaded many of their contemporaries—and then generations of historians looking back—that the elites who threatened American liberty in their era were the nonslaveholders! Today, this brand of politics looks eerily familiar. We have experience with political parties that attack "elites" in order to rally voters behind policies that benefit elites. This is what the slaveholders did in early American history, and they did it very well. Expansions of slavery became expansions of "liberty," constitutional limitations on democratic self-government became defenses of "equal rights," and the power of slaveholding elites became the power of the "common man." In the topsy-turvy political world we have inherited from the age of slavery, the power of the majority to decide how to tax became the power of an alien "government" to oppress "the people."

If we throw off the yoke of slavery, we might recover the lost promise of the Boston Tea Party: that taxation and liberty are fundamentally compatible.


t said...

Great post. Having come originally from Britain I'll never understand why a Dem doesn't take the offensive in countering the notion that taxes are by definition terrible and unjust. It seems to me that if a pol made a strong, affirmative case about the purposes and uses of taxes, he could counter the pre-historic notion which Repubs, to varying degrees hide behind. It's obviously the third rail, but if a Dem (or ANYONE) would come out swinging on this, I believe the American mind could be changed. In any case, if no one tries, nothing will happen. As Buddha-or Homer Simpson, or Plato, or Forrest Gump, or someone said, the journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step. Anyway, great post.

Anonymous said...

This entry, although it's from a year ago, is just as relevant today, if not more so.

Thanks for the book link, and the great article :)

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