As I wrote my income tax checks a few days ago, it reminded me that taxes take a chunk out of our family income. There is a real impact to taxes on average families. It isn't just a philosophical debate for politicians, many of whom are already very affluent and get hurt less than average citizens by tax rates.
In the midst of all of my thoughts about taxes, I remembered a quote by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Taxes are what we pay for civilized society." But how do we get a civilized society through paying taxes?
Most people rarely think when they get up in the morning that they will have much interaction with government in the course of a day. To the extent they do, they may hope not to be caught speeding or spend time renewing their car at the DMV. Although they might not realize it, the fact they had a peaceful sleep the night before is partly due to government. It means the nation was at peace. Invading armies did not roll tanks down their street or bomb their house. They were also protected by police who patrolled their neighborhood for burglars or gangs. That police officer also may have picked up a wayward son or daughter and brought them home for their own protection. Who provided all that? Government. How did they do so? Through taxes.
The average citizen may have slept well because his or her house did not fall apart. This was partly because local housing ordinances mandated certain building codes. Local government regulators protect citizens from the possibility of an unscrupulous builder willing to cut corners to make a larger profit. That was government, again, protecting our average citizen and using taxes to do so.
When our average citizen gets up in the morning and sends the children off to school, he or she probably does not think much about how that education is accomplished at a fraction of the cost the citizen would have to pay to send children to a private school. Nor is there much thought about who builds and maintains public universities for those same children when they get older, nor the federal grants and loans that assist those children in paying for that higher education.
When our typical citizen drives to work or takes public transportation, again there is little thought about who constructed the roads or who maintains them, or who provided the funding for the subway, train, or bus system. Our citizen does not consider that while he or she is away, someone hires and pays the police officer who patrols the neighborhood.
That is a small sample of the day-to-day involvement of government for our average citizen. The fact that this citizen goes about his or her daily activities without having to think much about government's role is not an indication that government is not there. On the contrary, it is an indication that typically government is playing its role so efficiently that the citizen can worry about other concerns.
Government is also there for the "what ifs." What if a neighbor's kid playing with matches started a fire in the neighborhood? Government (in the form of the fire department) would have come to put out the fire and save the neighborhood from being reduced to ashes. What if there was a natural disaster in the night — a hurricane or tornado? Government would have provided the civil defense signal to warn the community of the impending disaster — and that civil defense team would have received its information from a government agency responsible for tracking the weather. What if my married son or daughter has a job without health insurance and their children get sick? They receive health care coverage through CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program). How is all that paid for? Yes, taxes.
Not many people enjoy paying taxes, but it's worth taking a minute to consider what those taxes pay for and what a difference those services mean for our lives. Then, writing that check doesn't seem quite so painful.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU. Email: Richard_Davis@byu.edu