Taxes. We just recently had tax season. And believe it or not I thought, “I am really grateful to pay taxes.”
Don’t misunderstand me. I like having money just as much as the next person. And I don’t want to give my money away mindlessly. I am not an incredibly rich person. In fact, I have been a teacher at small schools or in graduate school my entire working career. And my paycheck has been pretty paltry at times. I have always been on a tight budget.
Nevertheless, I am grateful to pay taxes and here is why. I believe in the American ideal of equality of opportunity.
This is what I mean: We know that people are very different from one another. We are born into different families in different socioeconomic groups. And we possess different talents. We have different intelligence levels. These are just a few examples of the myriad ways in which we are different.
Because of differences like these, some people are born with significant disadvantages in life through no fault of their own. And some people are born with some significant advantages through no merit of their own.
People should not be penalized for being born with significant disadvantages. And people also should not be penalized for being born with significant advantages. Nor, however, should they constantly have an advantage over other folks merely because they were born with significant advantages.
That is how aristocracies operate. In an aristocracy, the wealthy and elite folks of society are given continual advantages in life, merely because they are born into wealthy and elite families.
America was not founded as an aristocracy.
Willem Koekkoek, “A Dutch City Landscape”
A good tax system is one of the best ways to help both folks born with significant disadvantages and those born with significant advantages achieve more equality of opportunity.
Taxes fund our public schools, our libraries, our museums, our cultural events, our public parks, and our social safety nets. While some people consider such social goods frivolous luxuries, they are actually the structures that allow people to escape generational poverty.
For instance, they allow people to develop social and civic knowledge and to get the training they need to get jobs (and, therefore, rely less on social services). Furthermore, such taxes allow people to get back on their feet after unexpected and undeserved job loss or home loss (through fire, flooding, hurricanes). And lastly, they allow people to receive health services they need so they are not devastated financially for the rest of their lives.
Without taxation, a large part of the population has no access, through no fault of their own, to the very goods they need to provide for themselves and to be stable. A society without taxation ends up merely replicating the advantages and disadvantage people are arbitrarily born into. (No person chooses the family they are born into). People deserve to develop their full human potential no matter their family of origin.
So, I am grateful for taxation because I want people to have a chance in life. But to be honest, I also believe in taxation for selfish reasons because a good tax system benefits me.
You heard me.
I believe in taxation because certain forms of taxation benefit me. When nations do not provide things like free education and social safety nets, the inequality in these nations grows exponentially. Interestingly (and frighteningly) significant inequality negatively impacts both the wealthy and poor people. That is because significant inequality fuels escalating violence, drug addiction, homicides, sickness, and all other manner of social ills.
Greater national equality is a predictor of greater mental and physical health in a nation. And greater inequality is a predictor of worse mental and physical health in a nation. (You can read about this here and here.) So, I am grateful for taxation because it helps me and my loved ones be healthier psychologically and physically by reducing extreme inequality.*
Now, I work hard, and I earn every cent of money I make. Occasionally, in the past, this has caused me to grumble about paying taxes.
The other day, I had a busy schedule, and I stopped by McDonalds to get some food. As I was waiting in line, I was thinking about how so many of us rely at one time or another on fast food. And I was also thinking about how little fast food workers are payed, how few benefits they have in their jobs.
And then I was thinking about all the other minimum wage workers who have few benefits in their jobs. I was thinking about how hard they work and about how society relies on them, too.
Sometimes folks work in jobs like this because they choose to do so.
However, sometimes, folks work in these jobs because life has given them very few other opportunities. These workers are often in an insecure position because of the poor wages they receive. And yet these workers provide an invaluable service to us. I want them to have the social services they need, and I want their children to have greater life opportunities if they desire them.
My taxes help to provide that.
Johannes Vermeer–“The Milkmaid”
This doesn’t mean that taxation erases all inequality.
As long as the earth is populated by people and not robots, there will be inequality. Taxation aims at reducing extreme inequality, not eliminating inequality altogether.
Now of course, this doesn’t mean that all taxes are good taxes. Taxes must allow everyone in our nation to survive and thrive. So taxation cannot be carried out in such a way that it only allows one portion of the population to thrive while the other perishes.
Furthermore, as a nation we must make sure that we elect officials who provide proper oversight to our schools, social services, and health care industries. It is certainly true that taxation won’t benefit people if money is mismanaged and wasted.
Because of these worries, some people suggest that government (which is necessarily inefficient, so the thought goes) should not be in the business of providing social services. Such folks argue that this work should be the job of churches or private industries.
It is excellent for churches or private organizations to help provide social goods, but they cannot be the main provider.
Churches and private organizations do not have the manpower, financial goods, nor the expertise to provide all the health, educational, cultural, and social services needed nationally.
In addition, both churches and private organizations can choose whom they help or do not help. They certainly have this right. But for equal opportunity to be truly equal opportunity, it has to be provided to everyone, regardless of religion or any other personal characteristic.
And this is what taxation tries to ensure.
We should note that any organization–church, private group, or government–can be managed well or poorly. Inefficiency and waste are not a necessary, nor a unique, characteristic of governments. And in fact, there are many nations in the world whose governments manage taxes effectively enough that the citizens in that country thrive very well. (You can read about this here.)
We sometimes think that it is possible to live a good life by just focusing on ourselves and our own well-being. This is a myth that is perpetuated by some aspects of U.S. economy and economies like it. The truth is that we actually thrive or decline together.
I want everyone to have a chance to thrive, and I want our nation to be healthy. That’s why I am grateful for taxes.
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