Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Moral Meaning of Taxes

I seldom get comments on my blog, but my posting on the Royal wedding generated several. (I guess that confirms that that was an event people actually cared about).
Commenting on my posting about the wedding, one reader apparently took exception to my final paragraph, in which I suggested that “a royal family also symbolizes that the nation is, in some meaningful sense, also a family,” and then went on to draw the inference that, “perhaps, if we Americans had such a sense of ourselves, then we would find the idea of paying taxes, for example, less some sort of imposition on our liberties and more an example of what we owe to one another as a family who are all in this together.”
The respondent commented that “a key difference between taxes & tithing, or taxes & charity, is that taxes are involuntary and thus are rooted in coercion. In either a monarchy or a republic, taxes have some basis in social contract - by definition they are an imposition on liberty, but they may be an imposition that may be justified if their purpose is to provide for the general (not specific) welfare. But to equate taxation with familiar duty, or taxation with charity, is to confound free charity with coerced charity.”
That, of course, represents a libertarian line of argument – precisely the type of argument that I was completely rejecting in what I wrote (and which the Catholic and natural law moral traditions have always rejected).
It seems to me that the libertarian starts with the supposedly free individual and sees social and political relationships as artificial and an infringement on the individual’s liberty. (Remember Margaret Thatcher’s allegedly saying that there is no such thing as “society”).
In contrast, Catholic and natural law moral traditions assume that we are naturally social and political beings, and that such natural social and political relationships are essential for human fulfillment. While moral questions may appropriately arise about the proper use of political power, neither social relationships nor political power, per se, require further justification in the Catholic and natural law moral traditions. They are natural givens.
That we have binding obligations to one another as part of a political community (without which we could neither survive nor thrive) is therefore also a given. Taxation is one form such obligation takes. (Hence, St. Paul’s famous injunction to pay taxes to those to whom taxes are due – Romans 13:7). Of course, there is plenty of room for debate and disagreement about the optimal level of taxation and similar such policy questions, about all of which reasonable people legitimately can and do disagree. Indeed it is in the nature of politics – as opposed to ideology – to recognize legitimate differences in interests and to seek to reconcile them through deliberation, debate, compromise, etc.
But legitimate debate about the optimal degree of taxation to achieve the public good is quite different from the libertarian line – and its contemporary incarnations in Tea Partyism, etc. – that the State is some alien coercive force and that taxation is a somehow presumptively illegitimate infringement on an individual liberty that enjoys moral priority over any notion of public good.
Needless to say, in our fallen, sinful condition, any exercise of power – in the family, in social institutions, in government – has the potential for serious abuse. Hence, we have constitutions, laws, regulations, and customs to regulate power and to hedge its use with reasonable restrictions. All modern democratic societies attempt to do this to a greater or lesser extent. Historically, the American political system has done this more or less well – with the conspicuous exception of corporate economic power, which it has not done such an effective job of regulating (one reason perhaps for the current recession), a problem which, paradoxically, libertarian ideologies, which oppose most restraints on corporate economic power, actually exacerbate (in the process limiting the effective freedom of most citizens without equal access to economic power).

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