Taxes and Patriotism

Increasingly, those of us who teach public administration are confronted with questions about the various movements—most prominently, the so-called “Tea Party” movement—that are challenging not just particular policies, but the legitimacy of government itself.  Much of that angry rhetoric is constructed around one dubious claim that we need to help students deconstruct: (1) taxes are unjust, because my money is the result of my own hard work.

 Ian Welsh points out some “inconvenient truths” about that claim. He compares the average American to the average citizen of Bangladesh. The average American makes $43,740 annually; the average Bangladeshi, $470.

Why the difference? American children are less likely to suffer from malnutrition, which adversely affects intellect later in life. American children are far more likely to get good educations. When a Bengali child grows up, there are fewer available jobs. If he starts a business, the market will be much smaller than the equivalent American market. As Welsh says,

“The vast majority of money that an American earns is due to being born American. Certainly, the qualities that make America a good place to live and a good place to make money are things that were created by Americans, but mostly, they were created by Americans long dead or by Americans working together. ..Since the majority of the money any American earns is a function of being American, not of their own individual virtues, government has the moral right to tax.”

Welsh isn’t the first to come to this conclusion. A student recently pointed me to this quotation by Thomas Paine, who expressed similar sentiments in his pamphlet “Agrarian Justice.”

“Separate an individual from society, and give him an island or a continent to possess, and he cannot acquire personal property. He cannot be rich. So inseparably are the means connected with the end, in all cases, that where the former do not exist the latter cannot be obtained. All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man’s own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.”

We need to remind students that patriotism is more than being willing to die for your country. It’s also about being willing to pay your fair share to maintain the social infrastructure that makes life more pleasant—and more profitable—for us all.

By: Sheila Kennedy


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