The Price of Civilization?

Taxes play a large role in our national political dialogue. Yesterday’s “tea bag” parties got me thinking about our for-them-or-against-them ideology. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this too, so read on, no matter which side of this issue you’re on!

Time and again I hear “Why should I pay taxes?” or “Why should I give the government my money?” And I think, what a failing of our educational system that so many people don’t understand that taxes actually serve a purpose. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said: “I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.”

Taxes are what pay for our common good. They pay for our roads, our schools, and yes, the “welfare” programs that are also hotly debated. And as one online commentor posted: “my taxes pay the salaries of those brave Navy SEALS.” What better way to support our troops than to pay them for their service?

Politics aside, it seems to me that we need at least some level of taxation. If we had no taxes at all, how would such things be paid for? Would all roads become toll roads? All schools private? And our nation’s military – would that become privatized also?

I understand the Libertarian point of view, and honestly I kind of like it. But I just don’t understand how things would work with no government involvement. And truly, I’d like someone to give me a good example of how the aforementioned commonwealth necessities would be cared for if not through taxation and government oversight. (So post those comments, please!).

I’m not saying the government has done a good job, mind you. The state of our nation’s schools makes me sick. But that is a separate issue (and one I will avoid here). The fact that it hasn’t always worked well doesn’t mean we throw the baby out with the bath water.

The public dialogue needs to move out of “no more taxes” and into a discussion of what taxes are needed, how they are levied, and how they should be allocated. Because that is the core of the argument.

I, for one, would gladly pay higher taxes if it meant increased access to well-run programs with higher standards. But I would also like to be able to weigh that option against a possible system of lower taxes that provided the same things. Inquiring minds want to know: how exactly would that work?

I’ve tried asking a couple of my more conservative friends, but they haven’t provided me the answers I seek. So now I’m asking you.

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Paul van der Hart

I wholeheartedly agree with Oliver Wendell Holmes. I understand the libertarian poitn of view, but I dislike it deeply. In my view it is the road to the vilest form of Darwinian survival of the fittest.

In a proper civilised society we, the Government (and there should be no difference between “we” and “the government”), should decide and define what is the common good, and how to allocate resources accordingly.

That current governments not always achieve those aims (I know, I know….) is neither here nor there. I remind you of the words Churchill said: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”.

Funnily enough it often seems that those who shout loudest that taxes should be abolished, are those who profit most from those taxes.

Ed Albetski


Angry populists always flock together in times of unease. Right now when even the pundits have no idea what will happen next with our economy, are we surprised that the rank and file are all acting like Christain Scientists with appendicitis? There is a great generalized anger right now. The tea parties were just an outlet. Not a pretty outlet when cheered on by folks like Glenn Beck, who I do not believe has the best interests of the country in mind, but with times as they are, we can only expect more group tantrums til things improve. And yes, how can any rational person expect any community to survive without common funds for the basic functions citizens won’t volunteer to do like garbage collection, policing, mutual defense, etc..?
What did these people do, fail CIVICS in junior high?

Matt Snyder

“I’m not saying government has done a good job…”

Government does better than people give it credit for. Yes, we should have high expectations, but there is a lot that goes right that you never hear about, because it’s not news when it works. Frankly, it’s probably boring.

Additionally, take the oft-cited example of Congress as slow-moving, dysfunctional, etc. Yes, Congress has some serious problems such as the never-ending campaign, but I think people forget this is a deliberative body of 535 different people. It’s not designed to be quick or pretty. It’s designed to be messy, and to force compromise so that all parties win some, and lose some. I think that probably it’s worst decisions in recent years are those, such as the USA PATRIOT Act, which were taken quickly.

Bryan Quinn

Don’t know if what I’ve heard is true or not…but even before a child is born he/she already owes $34,000 to the government. Sounds like some other folks didn’t pass CIVICS class either. Even if the figures aren’t right, the present spending spree of our government is over the top. I think we need a new direction, a new heart from those folks we send to DC. It seems like the two popular parties just can’t seem to get it right imho.


It’s not that they didn’t pass Civics, it’s that it was never even taught. Sandra Day O’Connor has been making the rounds supporting her new cause, which is to bring civics back into the classroom. In the age of No Child Left Behind, and its emphasis on math/reading (and on the lowest common denominator), civics has fallen by the wayside. Can you believe it???? No wonder we have so many problems.

Most Americans don’t even know the three branches of gov’t, much less how they function. This relates to Matt’s comment about how Congress works. And he’s right — we do forget the deliberative factor and the number of people who have to agree. I do have to say, though, that it’s a little hard to be appreciative of Congress when instead of dealing with our problems they are doing things like passing the “Freedom Fries” thing and worrying about drugs in baseball.

I don’t knock Congress so much for the initial Patriot Act, but I do hold them accountable for re-approving it or extending it or whatever it was. There was no rush there; they had plenty of time to deliberate. But now we’re off topic!

The only defense I’ve ever heard for no taxes is that it would all be run by private companies and the “free hand of the market” would ensure quality services. I’m not so sure that level of confidence in the forces of capitalism is warranted.

Ed Albetski

This has turned into many topics. Cool. Companies can’t be trusted to look out for the public good because companies look out for themselves, ie: their CEOs and as an afterthought, their stockholders.

The current spending spree isn’t “government as usual” it is an application of Keynesian economic theory to head off another depression in THE ONLY WAY THAT HAS EVER WORKED, HISTORICALLY, that is to deficit spend. Carping about the tactic isn’t helpful unless you have another theory to put forth that hasn’t all ready has been disproved. So far, even in congress, all we’ve heard is noise from folks in denial touting “solutions” that are known to have failed.

Frankly, I don’t see what all the complaining is about. Tax rates in the United States aren’t that bad compared to other developed countries. Try living in Canada or Sweden. I have a buddy from high school who moved to Canada several years ago and all he does is complain about the taxes. I’m sure there are places to live where the taxes are lower, but I’m not sure I would want to live there.

Andre Goodfriend

You beat me to the post on this one. I agree that taxes are the means by which we the public pay for the services we expect and receive from government. Increasingly though we’re finding ourselves in an environment where it’s expected that services should in some way be made free, like free news, or music on the Internet. The connection between services and the finances needed for those services is lost.

Also, government has a different financial model than private enterprise. Whereas private enterprise might measure success by financial profit, government cannot measure success by profit. Nor can we really measure success by the amount of money not spent, since this might be as a result of services not provided. We have to define goals that are in line with the will of the public and then be able to show how we are meeting those goals. It’s a much harder task, and one that we don’t always accomplish well.

On a brighter note, I saw that people in Vermont are protesting for higher taxes while overall the tax burden on the public appears to be near a historic low.


Ed: The reason Canada, Sweden, et al, have higher taxes is because they have programs like socialized medicine. And in France, they even have free college!

Andre: You are exactly right: government can’t measure success in terms of financial profit. I deal with this directly in my daily work. The benefit of preserving wilderness or providing quality recreational opportuntities cannot be measured in terms of dollars. People have tried, because that’s the only way to justify our budget requirements with the current ideology. But it only captures a small portion of the reasoning. How can you put a dollar amount on such things? It’s a different situation than what you were referring to, but it’s the same underlying concept.

I am disturbed by what appears to be an increasing sense of entitlement in our country. “I’m an American and it’s my right to (drive a Hummer, eat like a pig, run the AC all the time, have free everything, pay no taxes).” What happened to our national identity as hardworkers, as people who EARNED the American Dream? It seems that nowadays people expect to have the Dream handed to them – on a silver platter they bought on credit.

This ties into another point: that as a people do not accept any personal accountability. Get injured? Sue someone. Feel sad? Take a pill. Overweight? Blame McDonalds. Etc. So of course we are going to extend that ideology to taxes. I saw a great quote once about our being a race of children….Dang, I wish I could remember who said it. It was perfect. Maybe I’m thinking of Q — we are a “savage, child-like race.”

Ed Albetski

Geekchick, Yes! That is why my friend, who is a PhD, hasn’t moved back to the US. It may cost more, but their citizens get a better deal. I have another friend who has moved to France to live with his mother-in-law specifically for their socialized medicine. What’s funny is that he was a vice president of the Boston Herald (Rupert Murdoch’s) newspaper.

California used to have free college for it’s citizens but after Prop 13 froze property taxes, the state has slowly been coming apart at the seams. They all want their services, but they don’t want to pay for them. Well, DUH.


I think I was in college when the tuition really started to increase exponentially. It costs about $1500/year when I started, and about twice that by the time I graduated! Thank god for Pell and Cal Grants. Which, now that I think of it, are probably socialist.

Paulette Neal-Allen

We all want to see taxes spent on only our own priorities, but frankly, part of the government’s job is to see that some things need to be paid for even if a specific individual doesn’t care for them. I personally don’t understand half of the agencies that we have as part of the federal government and, since I don’t understand them, would probably vote to get rid of them… but just because I don’t understand them doesn’t mean that they aren’t necessary!

Paulette Neal-Allen

And GeekChick, back to your original question – how would it work if we were able to see a way to get to a system of lower taxes that provides the same NECESSARY things? Honestly, I think it would call for starting over. For making a list of each agency’s mission statement. A list of how each department within each agency meets that overall mission statement. And so on. Then going through and making a list of how to MEET that mission statement – and so on. Eliminating things that don’t actually add value now, though they possibly did when we first came up with them… Simplify, simplify, simplify.


I don’t know what half the agencies do, and I’m a Fed! And you’re right: there will always be some people who don’t agree with certain things. That’s the nature of democracy. But it seems to me that there should be a basic agreement on what counts as the “common good,” and the gov’t can take it from there. Schools are a good example. I’ve heard people say, I don’t have kids, why should I pay taxes to support the school system? The answer is that we as a nation need to provide quality education for future generations — otherwise those childless folks could end up seniors who eat cat food to survive.

Andre Goodfriend

I agree that you will probably find some agreement on things that amount to the “common good.” Where you’ll find more difference though is on who should provide those things. Many argue that the government, for all its good intentions, is not as results driven as the private sector. The Libertarian Party platform for example says with regards to education:

Education, like any other service, is best provided by the free market, achieving greater quality and efficiency with more diversity of choice. Schools should be managed locally to achieve greater accountability and parental involvement. Recognizing that the education of children is inextricably linked to moral values, we would return authority to parents to determine the education of their children, without interference from government. In particular, parents should have control of and responsibility for all funds expended for their children’s education.

I think, even in accepting the common good of things, we’re going to have to accept that there will continue to be disagreement about who best provides those things.

While I have to admit to a bit of a Libertarian streak, I think that the quality provided by the private sector will always play second fiddle to profit. And while succeeding in a competitive market may indicate that one’s product is popular, it doesn’t indicate that it fulfills the common good.

Government programs have also missed the mark. But, perhaps, here is where transparency will play a key role. It is much easier to demand transparency of our government than it is of the private sector.

With government, particularly if it’s managed at a local level, we should know that we’re getting what we pay for — all the while recognizing that we have to pay for what we get.


The mess(es) we are currently in provide example enough of what happens when you privatize. Private companies are all about profit, not quality product. They will provide the crappiest thing they can get away with. The “free hand of the market” is baloney, I’m sorry to say.

I’m glad Andre mentioned the local level of gov’t — because that’s where we can see success. I really think part of our problem is that we are just too dang big. It’s unwieldly. It would be nice to see if we could streamline some way, to put more power (and money) into the hands of local and state governments, and have the Feds be more oversight. That might be more effective.

Paulette Neal-Allen

But the problem with putting everything in the hands of the local government is that we have a bazillion localities all over the place re-inventing the wheel over and over and over again, because some of them want bicycle tires and some of them want automobile tires and some of them want wagon wheels. If they all got together and shared knowledge and resources, it would be a lot easier and a lot more would get done, but there are as many reasons for not cooperating as there are local government agencies.
And that’s all in the name of doing a good job of looking out for the local taxpayer’s dollar. There are people out there that think that because we are piggy-backing on [the state’s / the county’s / another agency’s] contract with [some company who is doing something] we are missing [their company’s / their relative’s company’s / their pet project’s] ability to do a better job for less money. Or that we should use a local company because the local company’s use tax goes to us. Or a multitude of other reasons.
So I think that Andre is right in a way, that we need to be able to see success (what GeekChick said) which is more likely if it’s at the local level. And it’s important to understand that we WILL have to pay for what we are getting. But at the same time, there are some obvious advantages of larger agencies, as well.
Unless of course, you believe that taxes are just for the little people 🙂


And that brings us to a key point: the answer lies in the middle. As it usually does. It can’t be all local or all Federal. Balance, grasshopper. Balance.

Pat Rupert

this is just too interesting – but no time to read right now – just thought it funny to be reading about ‘why I should pay taxes’ on a site populated by gov workers or contractors working for the gov. Interesting comments though.. followng now…


Hi Pat, thanks for the post. It is ironic, isn’t it? Now that I look back at this blog, I see that it’s still timely, as we discuss health care. I pay through the nose for my (very good) insurance coverage. I would gladly pay that money to a single-payer system instead, in the form of taxes. Hmm….maybe that’s another blog coming on…..

Pat Rupert

It doesn’t happen often, but I agree with 99% of what you’ve written, particularly with “…public dialogue needs to move out of…and into…”. This is a rational and logical statement, the problem for me is; what forum would provide for this dialogue such that it would have an effect? Our (the collective citizenry) forum now is too heavily reliant on big media, and we are so polarized, big media really only enhances the polizaration.
I get so frustrated at times I want to start blogging, but am convinced one more voice, regardless of how rational, can’t make a difference in the cacophony of current political speech. Sounds like a cop out to me, but I have a limited budget of time and too many other things I like to do. At the moment I’m working on the political education of my kids and grandkids, hoping my world will survive me.


I hear you. That’s why I haven’t blogged much in the last few months — too busy, and I was getting too angry to write anything useful. The best thing we can do is have the discussion with those around us, try to serve as an influence to those we actually know personally. There’s no other way. Big Media stinks. And so does the far, crazy Right that has changed the nature of “dialogue” to shouting-like-a-schoolyard-bully.

Pat Rupert

I’m guessing I’m on the same part of the political curve you are, but need to point out the crazies exist on both sides. Couldn’t have variety with out them and couldn’t have new and grand ideas if they didn’t exist, but they sure are getting loud lately.


Oh yes, crazies on both sides. But it seems that those on the right are louder and/or appear in the media more. I am way far out on the left, but I don’t think I’m crazy!