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Don't like taxes? Consider the alternative.
April 6, 2008 12:20 PM

With another dreaded tax deadline looming in less than 10 days, all Americans are required to pitch in and contribute their "fair" share of the budget needed to run the country. Although it makes sense that we all want something for nothing, you never hear the counter-argument that it feels great to contribute to the village coffer. Where's the person who exclaims: "Yes! Tax day is here. I LOVE paying taxes!!"?

Perhaps the answer is as simple as, "If I got what I paid for, I'd be happy." And since most Americans feel like their representatives spend their money unwisely in wasteful endeavors, it makes sense that we all hate paying taxes.

Yet, a recent essay by Peter Bernstein in the NY Times focuses on the positives of paying taxes:

Every year at tax time, someone is sure to remind us of Benjamin Franklin's maxim that nothing is certain but death and taxes. The statement happens to be true, but associating taxes with death adds only to the gloom of the moment. My goal here is to remove some of that gloom.

Some readers will throw up their hands, saying I've given myself an impossible task. What cheer can people find in writing a check to someone they don't know, for a purpose they can't specifically define, and for use by a bunch of people whom many taxpayers accuse of incompetence and disinterest? And think of the time we spend figuring out how much to pay -- with a negative reward for our efforts.

Exactly! Except there is a better way to think about this situation:

Though people exaggerate many negatives about taxes, I am more concerned about how we ignore the positives. Indeed, taxes buy us the free society we cherish. Government is an organized institution intended to produce and manage what are known as "public goods," and there is no way a free society can function without them. Public goods are things that all people, or at least a vast majority, want but don't want to pay for as individuals.

And what makes up these public goods that we pay for?

** We all want justice done, and justice involves courts. Judges and clerks have to earn a living, too. Taxpayers share those costs.

** We want parks and bridges to grace our cities, but I'm not going to pay for a park or a bridge on my own, even if I could, because most of its benefits will go to thousands or even millions of people who mean nothing to me.

** We want an army to defend our country, but who will stand up and say, "O.K., I will take on the army as my personal responsibility"? Who would even want such an arrangement?

And this list is just the beginning. You'd have to include police departments, education, medicare and the safety net, including unemployment insurance and disability, to name but a few. As the Mr. Bernstein states, "Paying taxes is the only way to have public goods that benefit all of us. Government is merely a device to help us pool the costs and share those burdens."

Government really is just a tool to be utilized by the people. If more of us were actually involved and simply picked up the phone to pressure our representatives to do the right thing, we'd have a greater sense of belonging, that our money really was being put to good use.

Or think of it this way: If you make a large purchase and are unhappy with it, you follow-up with the manufacturer and try to fix the problem, right? Most likely the largest expenditure you'll make this year is your donation to the government, so it just makes sense to follow-up to make sure you're getting what you pay for, right?

So stop whining on April 15th and be grateful for what your taxes get you. It's patriotic to pay taxes! Yet, if you're still unhappy with paying taxes and think there's waste and corruption, get involved and do the push-back with your representative. Follow the issues and make that phone call when you disagree (or agree, for that matter) with your Senator or Congressman.

As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. observed many years ago, "Taxes are the price we pay for civilization."

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