The Patriotism of Paying Taxes

In early October of 2008, about a month before the election, Thomas Friedman used his column in The New York Times to castigate Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin for claiming, in her debate with Joe Biden, that paying taxes was not patriotic.  He waxed eloquent about shared responsibilities for government.  He quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said, “I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization.”  And he made a fully valid point that a candidate who advocated for various things that required increased government spending — as Sarah Palin had in advocating for the financial rescue plan that was currently in work and for continuing the pursuit of a stable democratic end-game in Iraq — was hardly in a position to criticize the need to pay for them.

But, despite that, Friedman was knocking down a straw-man of his own construction.  Friedman accused Palin of declaring “…that Americans who pay their fair share of taxes to support all those government-led endeavors should not be considered patriotic.”  But that isn’t what she actually said.  She didn’t say  that “paying taxes”, per se, was not patriotic.  Rather, she refuted (in her typically inarticulate and, therefore, easily misrepresentable way) Biden’s claim that people had a patriotic duty to pay higher taxes than they were already paying in order to fund the innumerable list of government programs — far larger than anything Palin had proposed — that he and his running mate, Barack Obama, were advocating.

I wrote this directly to Mr. Friedman at his Times e-mail address.  I received no response.

9 October 2008

Regarding your outrage over Gov. Palin’s pronouncements on the patriotism of paying taxes, you’ve got me only half convinced.

I’ll grant you that Palin is inarticulate and, therefore, I’m not sure whether she meant exactly what you and everyone heard or something less outrageous and more grounded in principle. In fact, I’ll go farther and grant that the entire Republican party, and apparently most ‘conservatives’ these days, are inarticulate and incapable of making even a rudimentary case for a conservative philosophy. I’m not sure whether that’s because they’ve fallen into the trap of starting to believe the populist anti-intellectual ranting that they seem to think wins elections, or whether they actually are as stupid as they sound and are, therefore, incapable of understanding conservative philosophy themselves.

And I will also grant that even my innate mistrust of the Democratic party on matters of political philosophy and economics won’t sway me to give Gov. Palin my vote.

But, on the actual question of the patriotism of paying taxes, I have to demur a bit.

Certainly, it is my patriotic duty, as a citizen, to provide the government with resources to fulfill its primary obligations: To “establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty”. No argument.

And let us stipulate that I have some amount of “excess” money (though I hate that term) that the Democrats think the government should collect from me in taxes to pay for things that go beyond those basic obligations, to “fix” some problems in the economy or some inequities in society.  Joe Biden thinks it is my patriotic duty, as a service to the nation, to turn that money over to them for them to spend as they see fit — which is what Gov. Palin was responding to: the assertion that it is a patriotic duty to pay more in support of some Democratic vision for government beneficence, not that it is a patriotic duty to pay at all.

But there are many things I could do with that money other than turn it over to government. Certainly, hoarding it is useless for everyone. Certainly, investing it in scarcity, buying a rare painting or speculating in oil, does no one but me any good.  But what if I use it in other ways? What if I use it to buy a house? Doesn’t that, in some small way, help solve the problem of plummeting housing prices that are part of the root of our current problem? Will that action help more or less than letting that money run through the government’s accounts toward some financial “rescue”?

Is it really more patriotic to turn my money over to the government or to use it to invest in a business that will employ people and produce wealth? Is it really more patriotic to turn my money over to the government or to distribute it into my community by buying goods at local businesses or paying people to perform services for me? Is it really so clear to you that the government spending my money will create a greater benefit than me spending it myself?

It may be that Gov. Palin’s comments were as horrible as you thought. But an assertion that I have a “patriotic duty” to let the government choose how my money can be of most use, rather than letting me choose myself, is not obviously correct. If spending it personally, rather than letting the government spend it, produces a better effect, then it might very well be my patriotic duty to resist the government’s attempt to take it from me.

At root, the question, as it usually is, is not really patriotism but philosophy: who should control how resources are to be best allocated and what mechanisms should they use? And, on this, the Republicans and the Democrats still fundamentally disagree.

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