I’m sorry to have to be the one to burst the bubble of the all the people who are so worked-up over taxes in America, but one of their favorite arguments is extremely shallow. I’ve heard it for years now, and this argument of theirs really does deserve a lot more scorn, ridicule and organized push-back from the left that it gets. You can and will hear this argument in any tavern in America, in any type of public forum. “It’s my money,” they say, over and over, and with a finality that shows that they think it’s a “trump card” that ends the debate. “It’s my money, why should the government take it away from me?”
Yes, within the context of the modern capitalist economy, it’s your earned (or unearned) income. You worked the job and got the paycheck, or you owned the business and got the profit, or you had rich relations and you got the gift or inheritance. The bank account has your name on it. That’s all great. But in the larger picture of human life on earth, you can only get that money in an American bank account because you are, metaphorically, “standing on the shoulders of giants.” You are very much benefiting from the efforts of all the previous generations of Americans who created this wealthy society within these national borders, you are very much benefiting from the efforts of all the knowledge-workers of all the past centuries who domesticated the plants and animals, who discovered and perfected the metallurgy and chemistry and other sciences that separate us from the non-technological human societies.
Let’s get it straight: you can only make your money (which is, after all, only a symbolic means of transaction that allows you to command a wide variety of physical and social resources) in the context of an advanced society. If you were a pre-historic hunter-gatherer, if you were a peasant in the European middle ages, if you were an Indonesian street-vendor or a Filipino/Bolivian/Somali/ or Yemeni farmer today, you could not and would not be able to make the kind of money and enjoy the kind of comforts we have in America today – no matter how sharp you were, no matter if you were the smartest, hardest-working Somali farmer that ever existed.
Whether you’re a skilled, conscientious worker in a prospering field, or a hard-working, dedicated businessperson, you can only earn your money within the background, the context of a prosperous American nation. You can’t earn your money without the national road network that makes it possible for all of us, and for all the goods in our advanced economy, to get back and forth (so much more easily than in our own past, or in the present in many other lands). You can’t earn your money without the generations of civic peace that previous Americans have enjoyed. You can’t earn your money without the past efforts of Edison and Tesla and many others in taming electricity, and the achievements of Franklin Roosevelt and many others in subsidizing and promoting a national electrical network. Even those of us who are raving peaceniks could not earn our money without the either the (relative) world peace that our grandparents made possible by their military and economic efforts (and personal sacrifices) in the World War II era, or the prosperous economy that has been subsidized and stimulated by massive defense spending in the decades since World War II. (Understand your Keynesian economics, the spending stimulates the economy even if all or portions are wasteful in a narrower perspective.)
Your ability to make “your” money depends on the American effort to create a public education system, which gives us a population base with a common language, a common understanding and culture that makes it possible for us to have generally prosperous national economy. Your ability to make “your” money depends on the scientists and engineers who made it possible for us to have metal tools, to have productive agriculture, to have miracles of chemistry and computer technology. Could you have done any of this if we were still all at the level of Bolivia or the Congo, scratching the earth with inadequate tools all year to get a handful of food, walking miles to get water each day, struggling against heat and cold without modern appliances? No, you could not.
Could you enjoy the home you may own, without the civic peace provided by local and national government? The instinctive libertarians and anarchists among us, who are most apt to be out there hating taxes with all their might, are also among those who are most apt to insist on their rights as property-owners. “It’s my land, it’s my house, I don’t need the damn government telling me what to do with it” – we’ve all heard the rhetoric, often from a close relative, friend or neighbor. Yet it is precisely these same low-information libertarians and anarchists, with the guns our society has allowed us to have, who would make all our neighborhoods into mini-war zones as their greed and boundary disputes escalated into firefights, if we did not have the civilizing force of local government and local police restraining them. Ask the Afghans and the Somalis – it’s hard to make good money when your neighborhood is subject to violent feuds.
Whatever comforts you may enjoy, whatever family you may cherish, and yes, whatever money you may earn, is based on a common civilization that we today were lucky enough to be born into. If this was 500 years ago, you never could have gotten to today’s prosperity no matter what you did. If you or your parents or your great-great-grandparents hadn’t picked up and immigrated here, you could never get to today’s prosperity in the majority of locations around the world.
As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously noted, taxes are the price we pay for living in a civilized society. Those conservatives who believe that America is intrinsically an exceptional nation – perhaps even blessed by God – should be the most devoted to paying their taxes. The proposition that I would agree with is that America has enjoyed a very exceptional history, especially before 1950 or so, which has made our generally high standard of living possible, and for which we need to pay something back to ensure that these high standards remain available to our children and grandchildren. Sure, any particular government program, and any particular bit of taxation, should be subject to continuing social scrutiny, but the basic principle remains. Taxes are the price we pay for living in an advanced economy that allows us to earn the money to support our highly-refined lifestyles.
There are many possible ways we could screw up this civilization; I’ve been collecting and considering all the scenarios since the ‘60’s. But just to end on a note that I’d like to expand on in my next book, if you are seriously worried about a collapse of civilization, you’re not going to be able to save yourself by hoarding your money in order to surround yourself with guns, gold and tuna fish cans. That is only going to make you a target for the next bigger thug who wants your guns, gold and tuna fish. It is much more likely that survival and any eventual return to higher living standards will come through a knowledge of basic and advanced sciences, and the creation of real social networks that can offer real emotional and physical support in times of crisis. Knowing your neighbors will be much more important than fearing them; being able to adapt and create will be more likely to bring success than retreating into a fortress.
Civilization is a fragile construct, and it requires a fair degree of maintenance. Sitting with your snacks on the couch while you wail with Glenn Beck about the “evil” government stealing “your” money is about the direct opposite of investing in a future that will support us all. Do question the specifics of your government. Yet if you truly don’t understand why you need a government, and that you will need to pay for it somehow, and that it took a lot of past government and social cooperation to get you the money that you enjoy today, and that the government (even if it is often wasteful and inefficient) represents a social bridge between the investments of the past and the prosperity of the future, then you are little more than a “hemorrhoid” on a society whose amazing prosperity you do not deserve to share.