By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

The Lectern: Taxes are the price I pay for civilization

Readers of this blog know that I keep the blog away from partisan politics. There's a new New York Times column by Thomas Friedman, however, that has convinced me slightly to violate this rule -- the partisan element is small enough compared to its larger point, which does relate to a topic of this blog, government.

Friedman was criticizing a statement Sarah Palin made in her debate with Joe Biden (that's the partisan part, where I am breaking this blog's rule), where she said to Biden: "You recently said paying taxes is patriotic. In middle-class America, where I have been all my life, that is not considered patriotic."

Friedman proceeds, rightly, to lay into Palin: "What an awful statement. Palin defended the government's $700 billion rescue plan. She defended the surge in Iraq. ...She defended the surge in Afghanistan. And yet, at the same time, she declared that Americans who pay their fair share of taxes to support all those government-led endeavors should not be considered patriotic. I only wish she had been asked: 'Governor Palin, if paying taxes is not considered patriotic in your neighborhood, who is going to pay for the body armor that will protect your son in Iraq? Who is going to pay for the bailout you endorsed?"

Thank you, Tom Friedman.

In some sense, of course, nobody likes paying taxes. But, as Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of America's great jurists, once stated (and Friedman goes on in the column to cite), "Taxes are the price I pay for civilization." It is government that creates the environment that permits civilization. It does so by assuring that people can live with relative confidence about their personal security, and that they can trust others in the transactions and other dealings that are central to society. It does so by smoothing out the sharp edges of social inequalities due to bad luck, discrimination, and the vagaries of the market economy. As bad as our current financial crisis is, I don't want to think about how much worse it would be without the efforts of governments to stem panic.

The Spy Museum in downtown DC features a number of newsreels from World War II to evoke the spirit of that era. One of them actually urges people to pay their taxes early, saying that the earlier the government got its money, the faster they could build the weapons to fight the Nazis.

None of this means that every government program should be continued, nor that all of us who care about government don't need to be obsessed by improving government's performance. It does mean that the kind of cheap anti-tax screeds that politicians (not just Sarah Palin of course) often make about taxes are wrongheaded, and especially so right now.

What do you think? Post a comment on this blog (registration required) or send an e-mail to and we will post it for you.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Oct 10, 2008 at 12:10 PM


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