Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- March 22, 2005


Image Courtesy of the Democratic Underground

Ernest Partridge, Co-Editor
The Crisis Papers

March 22, 2005





What people earn is their money. Seventy-two years after its inception, what is our Federal tax system? It is a system that yields great amounts of revenue, even greater amounts of disorder, discontent and disobedience. [Tax cheating] is not considered bad behavior. After all, goes this thinking, what's wrong with cheating a system that is itself a cheat? That isn't a sin, it's a duty!

Ronald Reagan
NPR, May 30, 1985

The Proposal:
 If  the "tax refuseniks" are so opposed to paying their taxes, let’s make all tax payment voluntary.

Grover Norquist of "Americans for Tax Reform" proclaims that he wants to “drown government in the bathtub,” by which he must mean abolish government services. What gives government the right, we are often asked, to seize our property through taxation? “It’s your money!” Bob Dole shouted. And George Bush repeatedly asks, “who is better qualified to spend your money? You, or the government?”  To the libertarian-right, tax payments for any purpose other then the protection of individual rights to life, liberty and property, is theft.

No one likes to pay taxes. But for that matter, no one likes to pay the mortgage on one’s house, utility bills, or car payments. However, we all understand that if we do not make these payments, we will be evicted from our homes, or the electricity will be shut off, or our cars will be repossessed – and justly so.

So here is my proposal: Make all tax payment voluntary. If Grover Norquist and all other like-minded individuals find tax-paying so onerous, then they may be excused from paying taxes.

The only provision is that if they do so, they are no longer entitled to the services that are supported by taxes.

To wit:

  • They may no longer use the public highways.

  • In case of fire, they can not call the Fire Department to save their homes.

  • In case of home invasion, armed robbery or other criminal threats, they can not call the police for help.

  • They can not sue for damages in court. (Judges, bailiffs, court reporters, etc. are on the public payroll).

  • They can not hire workers that were educated in public schools or universities.

  • They can not use computers (micro-circuitry developed by NASA) or the internet (originated in DARPA, a federal agency). 

  • They can no longer purchase prescription drugs (certified safe and effective by the FDA).

  • They can no longer purchase meat and dairy products that have been inspected by the Dept. Of Agriculture.

  • They can not visit the National Parks or National Forests.

  • They can not purchase airline tickets, (since that industry is regulated by the FAA) or use public airports.

  • Their bank accounts may not be protected by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

  • For that matter, they cannot use US currency, since it is guaranteed by the Federal Government. Instead, they will have to conduct all transactions by barter.

And that’s just the beginning of a long list.

Any takers?

(Of course, it will be impossible to deprive the tax-refuseniks of all government services – in some cases they will, of necessity, be “free riders.” For example, the air they breathe will be cleaner due to the enforcement of clean air standards, paid for by other citizens. Similarly, they will be safer from foreign invasion thanks to a military paid for by others).

All tax refuseniks who are caught using these services, will be assessed charges. In other words, they will be required to pay their taxes.

Which kinda leaves things pretty much where they were to begin with, doesn't it?

Politicians like Bob Dole and George Bush, keep telling us that taxes are “your money!” – in other words, that we are entitled to keep it. Activists such as Grover Norquist and his “American for Tax Reform” demand that taxes be cut, and cut, and cut again, until, as Norquist puts it, government is reduced to the size where we can “drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub,” which I take to mean, eliminate government. All this, notwithstanding the obvious and manifest public benefits that are “purchased” by tax revenues. 

And yet, somehow, this subversive nonsense strikes a responsive chord among our fellow citizens. Why is this?

To be sure, many citizens are not opposed to paying their taxes, per se. Their complaint is that so much of their tax assessment is lost to waste, fraud and abuse. But this complaint is legitimately voiced by all citizens, regardless of political persuasion – right, left, and center. Everyone, that is, except those scoundrels who benefit from that waste, fraud and abuse. The solution, however, is not to abolish taxes, for the above listed services must still be supported. The answer is improved law enforcement and harsh penalties. Put bluntly, where there is waste, fraud and abuse, we should root it out and then nail the bastards – beginning, appropriately, with Dick Cheney’s pals at Haliburton who seem to have “lost”a few billions “our” money in Iraq.

Next, there is the issue of the fair distribution of the tax burden. The traditional principle of tax assessment is that it be based upon the ability to pay. It is self-evidently true that the value of a constant sum of money, say a thousand dollars, is far greater to a poor person than to a wealthy person. If a Wal Mart clerk loses a grand, she and her children will go without food for several days. If Bill Gates loses that amount, it is of no consequence whatever to him. Hence the graduated income tax rates, and the inherent injustice of Steve Forbes’ “flat tax.”  Similarly, the wealthy individual’s income from investments should not be taxed less than the poor workers’ salaried income. And yet, more and more, the tax burden is shifting away from the wealthy to the poor and middle class. Once again, this is legitimate reason for complaint and reform. But meanwhile, those aforementioned public services must be paid for.

Even so, there is in this country a tradition of the clever and resourceful tax evader as some sort of a hero. By hiring a coterie of skillful accountants and lawyers to seek out loopholes, or by setting up phony off-shore corporations, this enterprising soul is admired by many for striking a blow against the despised and unworthy “big government.” In fact, he is transferring his tax obligation to the rest of us, the honest taxpayers. Somehow, too many of us seem to forget as he evades his tax responsibility, legally or otherwise, he continues to take advantages of the services paid for by the rest of us: the roads and bridges, the protection of his property and person by the police and fire departments, the knowledge and skill of his workers, most of whom were educated at public expense. Some hero!

Next month, as you fill out your IRS 1040 Form, or write a check to the county to pay your property tax, or add on the sales taxes on your purchases, think of what you are paying for with those taxes – the roads, schools, public safety, safe food and drugs, secure investments, parks and museums, clean air and water, and so much more. And if you are annoyed by your tax burden, direct your anger, not at the government which provides these services, but at the tax cheats and the politicians who write the tax laws that benefit their “sponsors”– their campaign contributors.

“Government” is not the culprit – “the problem,” as Ronald Reagan put it. The authentic villains are the free-loaders who “purchase” the tax loopholes and the sweetheart government contracts through their political "contributions," and who thus leave it to the rest us to pay for the vital public services of which all of us, honest and dishonest alike, are the beneficiaries.

Copyright 2005 by Ernest Partridge


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .