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Thinking about taxes


This week a lot of us will be thinking about our annual contribution to the government’s expenses. The federal budget adds up to a grand total of one and a half trillion dollars. It’s a lot and, as with any big expenditure, it’s worth taking time to think about it.

Taxes have been a problem in this country since day one. Some citizens regard them as legalized robbery. They agree with Tom Paine who said, when income tax was introduced in 1792, “What at first was plunder has assumed the softer name of revenue.” The extreme anti-tax position embraces a kind of anarchy in which central government ceases to exist, and only the fittest survive. This viewpoint is especially popular with those who imagine that they are the fittest.

The more liberal view of taxation is that we pay the government to look after us with social services and to protect us from wicked people like jihadists, North Koreans, atheists and above all from each other. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes summed up this position when he said: “I like paying taxes; with them I buy civilization.” The extreme form of this pro-tax position is that government should just take everything we have, take care of everything we need and give us back a few Amazon gift cards to keep us quiet.

But tax revenue also pays for some extravagant and borderline crazy things, like $30 million a day for a Congress that seems not much interested in legislation. So, I would like a line-item veto at the end of my 1040, a simple list of major government expenditures, including Congressional salaries, perks and pensions, against which the taxpayer could just check off “Yes” or “No” — I want to help pay for this, or I don’t. I’ve been suggesting this kind of selective tax system for years, but the IRS has never had the courtesy to respond.

Is there anything that we, as taxpayers, can do? The most famous tax rebellion in history was led by Queen Boadicea in England in the year 60 AD. She led a fierce revolt against taxation by the occupying Romans, killed every Roman within 100 miles and seized the capital city of Londinium. But the revolt was crushed by the Emperor Nero, who slaughtered thousands of the reluctant taxpayers, and so has to be counted as a rather messy failure.

There was some disagreement between the American colonists and the British King in the 1770s which also turned into a full-scale rebellion. But it too was a failure because the power of taxation simply crossed the Atlantic from King to Congress. Henry David Thoreau famously took to the woods in 1846 to avoid paying taxes but was thrown in jail anyway. Democrats, of all people, demonstrated against taxes in 1868, with no result. Since then, it has been rather quiet. The only people who successfully avoid paying taxes are those who have contrived not to have their names in the system at all, and those who are rich enough to employ the best accountants.

It seems there’s not much we can do about the tax deadline, except perhaps this. I read recently that “Gotham” was adopted as a cartoon name for New York City, in memory of a medieval English village whose inhabitants had all pretended to be insane in order to fool the king’s tax collectors. It worked. The tax collectors gave up and went away, leaving Gotham in peace. It sounds crazy, but It might be worth a try.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.