Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- April 16, 2009


On Behalf of the "Tea Bag Brigades:" A Proposal

Ernest Partridge

Last Wednesday, in hundreds of "tea party" demonstrations from sea to shining sea, the word was proclaimed: "Taxation (with or without representation) is tyranny!"

The People (well, maybe a small fraction of one percent of them) have spoken, however confused and inchoate the message.

And so, in response, I have a simple proposal:  let’s make all tax payments 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 asked, “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.  (More on the "qualification" of the government to "spend your money" here).

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 payments voluntary.  If all those April 15 "tea party" tax protesters find tax-paying so onerous, then they should 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 United States 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 protesters 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 free-loading tax protesters who are caught using the above listed 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, and the FAUX News screech-merchants 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 -- not, that is, if the above listed services are to 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 – including Dick Cheney’s pals at Halliburton and other "contractors" who seem to have “lost”a few billions of “our” money in Iraq.

The more outrageous injustice in our tax system is the unfair distribution of the tax burden: a tax structure that allows the mega-billionaire to pay a smaller percentage of his income than his secretary or his house keeper.  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. 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.  Ronald Reagan said as much in 1985 as he all but advocated rebellion against the very government over which he presided:

The members who spoke in this capital [Williamsburg, Virginia] said 'no' to taxes because they loved freedom. They argued, "why should the fruits of our labors go to the crown across the sea." Well, in the same sense we ask today, "why should the fruits of our labors go to that capital across the [Potomac] river?" . . . . We, like the patriots of yesterday, are struggling to increase the measure of liberty enjoyed by our fellow citizens. We're struggling, like them, for self-government -- self-government for the family, self-government for the individual and the small business, and the corporation... 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!  (Transcribed from a tape of Reagan's speech, NPR, May 30, 1985)

This was a message that was repeated throughout the realm in the astroturf "tea parties" on Wednesday.

And so, by hiring a coterie of skillful accountants and lawyers to seek out loopholes, or by setting up phony off-shore corporations, the enterprising tax evader is admired by many for striking a blow against the despised and unworthy “big government.” In fact, he is transferring his tax burden 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!

Pause for a moment and reflect upon what you are paying for with the federal income tax that your filed before Wednesday, along with the property and sales taxes that you pay to your state and community:  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.  Included among the villains are demagogues of the right-wing media who incite masses of gullible "sheeple" to protest against their own self-interest, and against their democratically elected leaders.

Are you "mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore"?   Then don't simply act angry.  In addition, act smart.  Don't blindly demand the abolition of taxes.  Public services, supported by taxes, are both desirable and, in many cases, indispensible.  Instead, demand tax justice, and insist that public officials either get with the reform program or step aside and be replaced by those who will.

Copyright 2009 by Ernest Partridge

(A revision and expansion of  "For Tax Refuseniks: A Modest Proposal," The Crisis Papers, March 22, 2005).

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 .