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Stephan Holmes & Cass R. Sunstein, Why We Should Celebrate Paying Taxes, in The Chicago Tribune, at 19 (April 14, 1999)


"It's our money, and we want to keep it!"

"Why should the IRS take our money, when the government wastes it and we want to spend it on ourselves!"

These are piercing sentiments, especially on April 15. But are they defensible? In what sense is the money in our pockets and bank accounts fully "ours"? Did we earn it by our own autonomous efforts? Could we have inherited it without the assistance of probate courts? Do we save it without support from bank regulators? Could we spend it (say, on the installment plan) if there were no public officials to coordinate the efforts and pool the resources of the community in which we live?

Do not get up tomorrow and drape your house in black! For tax day is not a day of national mourning. Without taxes there would be no liberty.

Without taxes there would be no property. Without taxes, few of us would have any assets worth defending.

Indeed, property owners are more deeply "dependent" on government than food-stamp recipients. The man who purchases several news organizations owes more to legislative, adjudicative and administrative action than the woman who sleeps under one newspaper at a time.

The Americans who most genuinely "shift for themselves" are not the grumbling taxpayers, but those among the homeless who shun shelters and soup kitchens in favor of garbage cans, subway grates and spare change. To say that such individuals shift for themselves is to say that they have little access to the taxpayer-funded legal machinery which could protect them from undeserved institutionalization or from assault by teenagers with baseball bats and gasoline cans.

Homeowners, by contrast, do not depend only on fire and police departments and competent management of the registry of titles and deeds.

As the deportees from Kosovo have just bitterly learned, they also depend on taxpayer-funded armies, manned largely by low-income citizens, to protect their homes from drunken and ruthless marauders. And government does not "merely" protect property; it also defines and assigns property, setting forth the maintenance and repair obligations of landlords, for instance, and deciding whether the employer or the employee "owns" the inventions of the employee. To imagine property owners without government is therefore like imagining chess players without the rules of chess.

This is all a truism, in a way. But it has yet to become a commonplace. Its implications are seldom thought through. Most importantly, the dependency of individual freedoms on collective contributions has not sufficiently penetrated the American debate over our basic rights and the proper limits of the state.

It may be reasonable, in some cases, to cut tax rates. What is unreasonable and, in fact, preposterous is the all-too-familiar conservative rhetoric that flatly opposes individual liberty to the government power to tax and spend. You cannot be for rights and against government because rights are meaningless unless enforced by government.

If government could not intervene effectively, none of the individual rights to which Americans have become accustomed could be reliably protected.

Unlike fees, levied on those who directly enjoy a service, taxes are levied on the community as a whole, regardless of who enjoys the benefits of the public services funded thereby. Most rights are funded by taxes, not by fees. This is why the overused distinction between "negative" and "positive" rights makes little sense. Rights to private property, freedom of speech, immunity from police abuse, contractual liberty, free exercise of religion--just as much as rights to Social Security, Medicare and food stamps--are taxpayer-funded and government-managed social services designed to improve collective and individual well-being.

This raises some important questions, to be sure. Who decides, in the United States, how to allocate our scarce public resources for the protection of which rights for whom? What principles are commonly invoked to guide these allocations? And can those principles be defended? These questions deserve more discussion than they usually receive, unclouded by the dim fiction that some people enjoy and exercise their rights without placing any burden whatsoever on the public fisc.

In any case, to recognize the dependency of property rights on the contributions of the whole community, managed by the government, is to repel the rhetorical attack on welfare rights as somehow deeply un-American, and totally alien or different in kind from classical or "real" rights. No right can be exercised independently, for every rights-holder has a claim on public resources--on money that has been extracted from citizens at large.

For all rights--call them negative, call them positive--have that effect. There is no liberty without dependency. That is why we should celebrate tax day. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, the great Supreme Court justice, liked to say, taxes are "the price we pay for civilization."

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