Taxes, the Price of Civilization

Those pesky, liberal universities are at it again, as a doctoral thesis reveals that Americans don’t mind paying taxes after all!

In national surveys, over 95 percent of Americans agree with the statement, “It is every American’s civic duty to pay their fair share of taxes,” and more than half see taxpaying as “very patriotic.” One man from Ohio called it a responsibility to “the Founding Fathers.” A former Marine said taxpaying is “the cost of being an American,” while a man from California said tax avoidance is the equivalent of “shorting the country.”

The feeling is bipartisan. Surveys show that Republicans are significantly more likely than Democrats to agree that taxpaying is a moral responsibility. One woman in Kansas called taxpaying “a responsibility that we have to our country as citizens” because “the country has to be taken care of.” She is a Christian conservative active in her local Tea Party group. While Tea Party activists and other staunch conservatives object to paying for “the Obama agenda,” as she described it, they regularly use the status of “taxpayer” as shorthand for being an upstanding, contributing citizen.

The author reports that Americans also show a high level of willingness to pay their taxes, are compliant with tax laws, and are more honest and reliable than citizens of other countries.

According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, people earning less than $19,000 a year pay an average of almost 11 percent of their income in state and local taxes, compared to the 5 percent paid by the top 1 percent of earners. Americans don’t think taxes are fair just because someone else is footing the bill.

As taxpayers, Americans believe they have a stake in our political system. Many of my interviewees saw taxpaying as closely tied to their right of political participation. The Tea Party activist from Kansas says that, in addition to taxpaying, citizens have a responsibility to “speak out on things.” Another interviewee, a senior citizen in Texas, seems to agree. “Obeying the law is a responsibility,” she says. “If the law is unfair or unjust, then there is another responsibility: that of trying to overturn it or stop it.” To be a taxpayer is to be invested in political decision-making, and therefore obligated to participate.

Almost everyone is also concerned that government officials are not held accountable for how tax dollars are spent. Attitudes towards Congress are exceptionally negative, and doubts about political leaders often taint the taxpaying experience. My interviewee in Utah described paying taxes as bittersweet. “You know, I’ve heard of taxes as paying for civilization, to be able to live in a civilized society, and, so I like that aspect of it. But I wish that I had a bigger voice.” The senior citizen from Texas worried that taxes are “feeding the bureaucracy.” But she still believes that paying taxes is a responsibility we have to one another. A resident of the Gulf Coast, she told me that taxes are “supposed to pick us up off our roofs when the water gets too high.” Or, as another interviewee in Florida put it, “You know, no man is an island. We are all in this together.”

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VANESSA WILLIAMSON is a doctoral candidate in Harvard University's Department of Government and the author, with Theda Skocpol, of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.