Political Hay

Pay and Be Happy!

Every April it's the same thing: a liberal pundit or two hectoring taxpayers about the joys of taxation.

By 4.25.03

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It's still that time of year, as many American continue their recovery from the traumas associated with Tax Day. What makes recovery doubly infuriating is that each year some liberal pundit or other will subject us to a lecture about how grateful we should be for the opportunity to pay our taxes. This year we received a two-fer: both Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. and the Des Moines Register editorial board. With some variation, the lectures usually adhere to the following template:

1. Distort the position of conservatives.

According to the Register:

Victorious U.S. forces are turning their attention to creating a new government in Iraq.

Hey, wait a minute. Why bother?

What does Iraq need with a government? As Ronald Reagan famously said, "Government is not the answer to your problem. Government is the problem."

Government is evil. Iraq would be better off without one.

No, we're in favor low taxes and limited government. Our argument isn't with the existence of government; it's with the size. Government currently does way too much and, as a result, the tax burden is too high.

2. Indulge in a pathetic reductio ad absurdum.

Again, the Register:

If tax cuts are good for the economy, it follows that having no taxes would be even better.

That's like saying since losing weight is good, being anorexic is great. Just as individuals have an ideal weight, government can impose an ideal tax burden. Currently, though, government is bloated and needs to be put on a diet of tax cuts.

3. Give a condescending reminder of the importance of government.

According to Dionne:

At this time of year, I am tempted to pick out the two dozen loudest anti-tax propagandists and send them a copy of one of the most important volumes of the last decade. In "The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes," published in 1999, law professors Stephen Holmes and Cass Sunstein do a brilliant demolition job on the idea that taxes are inimical to freedom.

Holmes and Sunstein are not Marxists. They vigorously defend property rights and the value of a society that "encourages personal initiative, social cooperation and self-improvement." But they also note that public programs commonly described as "redistributive" are essential to the social stability on which property owners depend. Welfare rights, they argue, "compensate the indigent for receiving less value than the rich from the rights ostensibly guaranteed equally to all Americans." And, especially in the case of education, government expenditures promote both initiative and self-improvement.

I doubt that anyone who wrote a big check to the government in recent days will suddenly feel wonderful after contemplating how much the rights we enjoy depend on the taxes we pay. But they might at least consider that the old saw "freedom isn't free" applies at least as much to paying taxes as it does to the other ways in which we protect and defend our liberties.

The welfare system compensates the indigent? The lesson of welfare reform appears to be that the welfare system worked to keep them indigent, preventing them from getting good "value" from their rights. Welfare is, rather, an example of government creating social instability.

More importantly, this argument is misleading because it focuses only on those government functions which are, arguably, essential. It ignores how much government we actually have. This is a link to a Louisiana State University website that provides a list of government agencies, boards, and commissions. There are more than 1,300, and that's just the federal government! While conservatives would not argue the social benefits of a military, schools, or roads, we are on solid ground in questioning the merits of the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, the Dairy, Livestock and Poultry Division, or the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.

This year's version of lecture had an addition to the template:

4. Use Iraq as an example.

According to the Register:

Oh, maybe Iraq would need a little government. Just enough to prevent looting, keep the electricity and the water running, rebuild the roads, etc.

And Dionne:

If you think government is useless, evil and unnecessary, ponder those pictures of looters in Iraq ransacking homes, hotels, even hospitals. Feel for that sobbing official of the National Museum of Antiquities, aghast at the destruction of irreplaceable historical artifacts by an angry mob.

It's telling that one of the first things some liberals see when they look at Iraq is a reason to pay our taxes. One might look at the secret police, the torture chambers, and the imprisoned children in Iraq and see a powerful warning about the tyrannical potential of government. One might even consider ways to limit its power. But not, apparently, liberals still wedded to the idea of government as a tool to cure all of society's ills.

Now that April 15, 2003, has passed it will be nearly a year before most Americans have to worry about paying their taxes again. It will, fortunately, also be a year before we have to endure another liberal lecture about how we should be happy about paying taxes.

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David Hogberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.  Follow David Hogberg on Twitter.