Reflections on April 15th

Margaret Atkins MunroLet's Talk About MoneyLeave a Comment

Strange as it may seem, paying taxes in this country should be seen as a privilege. April 15th, the income tax filing deadline set by Congress in 1954, should be noted as the day we commemorate the principle of taxation with representation that we fought for and won during the American Revolution. James Otis, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, said “Taxation without representation is tyranny”, and this became the rallying cry of perhaps the greatest—and arguably most famous—tax revolt in history. The Sons of Liberty did not throw tea into Boston Harbor because it was being taxed; instead, the tea went into the drink because the colonists were allowed no voice in the Westminster Parliament of Great Britain.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about this connection between taxes and representation, perhaps because of the quality of political rhetoric that has proliferated since the last presidential election. I’m particularly fascinated by the co-opting of history by the Tea Party Movement, which appears to dislike anything to do with government in any form. As far as I can tell, according to the Tea Party conservatives, the only good government is little or no government. If my reading of this movement is correct, they are the children of Thomas Paine, not Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Paine, who published the bestselling pamphlet Common Sense in 1776, stated in his opening paragraph that

“Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices… The first is a patron, the last is a punisher.”

Contrast that sentiment with the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, which promises to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”

In fact, a close reading of history shows that the founders of this country actively distanced themselves from the words of Thomas Paine. Yes, his pamphlet was widely read, and did fan the flames of anti-British sentiment that were already brightly burning, but the very causes he espoused were those soundly rejected by the drafters of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These documents, while clearly divorcing themselves from the tyranny represented by the British king and Parliament, established a foundation of good government that was, in all ways, moderate and flexible.

The elastic language in these two documents still stands up to modern scrutiny and interpretation. There is no mystery why the U.S. Constitution is the oldest, least-revised and longest functioning constitution in the world today. The founders, in attempting to be all things to all property-owning men (women, servants and slaves couldn’t vote), crafted governing rules so vague that they have continued to be relevant and valid throughout this country’s history. The only absolutes contained in it are the form of government – by representation – and the checks and balances between the three main branches. Certainly, nowhere in the U.S. Constitution is even the slightest inkling that government is bad, or evil, or dissolute.

In addition to creating a government for the country, the Constitution also provides for the imposition of taxes of all sorts. Income taxes may not be specifically mentioned, but Article I, Section 8, clearly states “The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence (sic) and general Welfare of the United States…” Congress, whom we have elected to represent us, imposes and collects taxes, not the IRS, which is merely its agent. Our elected officials craft the programs that our tax dollars fund. If we don’t care for their choices, the Constitution allows us to vote them out of office in the next election.

That is the beauty of this arrangement – it respects the majority’s wishes while still allowing the minority a voice. This new political structure replaced a system where the colonists had no standing, no voice. Every time we sit down and make an accurate reckoning of the dollar amount of our fair share in funding this grand experiment in representative democracy, we honor the system, and our forebears who devised it. It is a testament to their forethought that their creation still exists in its more or less original form 223 years later.

Undeniably, April 15th, often referred to as Tax Day, is a deadline that resonates for most of us with fear and anxiety as we attempt to reckon the amount of tax we must pay on our prior year’s income. How very odd, then, to consider this day instead as something we should celebrate, even treat as a national holiday. And yet, we should. Taxation with representation is just. It is, as Oliver Wendell Holmes stated, the price we pay for a civilized society. And today, we honor that implicit commitment made by our founders when they rejected a new American monarchy, and instead put governance in the hands of the people.