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Paying the Freight is Not Taxing for Good Government

To whom do we owe the greatest thanks for defending the American way of life? Our soldiers and police officers play an honorable role in protecting us, but those most deserving of our appreciation are the employees of the Internal Revenue Service. 

Unfortunately, throughout American history tax collectors have been viewed only slightly better than child molesters. In school we all read that the hatred of taxes required our forefathers to declare independence from the tyrannical, tax-loving Brits. We also read that many early Americans pursued not only happiness, but also tax collectors, who were usually tarred and feathered after capture.

One of the first major actions of the new government of the USA was in 1794 when 13,000 federal troops put down an anti-tax rebellion in western Pennsylvania. The “whiskey rebellion” was sparked by the government’s attempt to raise taxes to pay off the debt that had been incurred during the war of independence.  This issue was so important to President Washington that he personally led the army to the outskirts of Pittsburgh in order to send a clear message to the new nation that he would not tolerate the abuse of tax collectors.

To whom do we owe the greatest thanks for defending the American way of life? ... those most deserving of our appreciation are the employees of the Internal Revenue Service.

Another important political figure, one who worked two thousand years before our Founding Fathers, provided powerful guidance concerning taxes. Jesus, who has more influence in contemporary American politics than George Washington, made a tax collector, Matthew, one of his apostles. In Sunday school I learned that Jesus shocked everyone when he sat down to eat with yet another tax collector. The Bible teaches us that Jesus proved his holiness by forgiving even those sinners who didn’t deserve compassion: prostitutes and tax collectors.

But I believe that Jesus was not trying to demonstrate his humility in these actions. Instead, through his friendly relations with tax collectors he was showing proper respect for those who perform the thankless, but crucial, task of collecting taxes. He preached: give your soul to God, but your taxes to Caesar. As an astute political philosopher, Jesus understood that social stability depended upon love, forgiveness and taxes.

As a freedom-loving and God-fearing American, I was raised to view the IRS as a sinister hybrid of the KGB and Satan. Any organization that took money from hard-working people had to be the enemy of liberty and deserved to be cheated and berated at every opportunity. But after visiting a few countries that don’t collect taxes, I gained a profound appreciation of taxation.

In my travels, I learned that the clearest determinant of a country’s political stability and economic prosperity is its ability to collect taxes. Anyone who considers taxes to be a violation of individual liberty should take a trip to the current home of the free – Russia.

The Russian government collects few taxes, and the whole country is paying a high price for this freedom. Public services are decrepit or non-existent. Policemen extract bribes at every opportunity to make up for the salaries that the government can’t pay them. Senior citizens are forced to sell their belongings, because the government can’t afford to give them a respectable pension.

The rich live in fortresses and must hire bodyguards to keep themselves safe from the majority of the population that has barely enough to survive. This, or worse, is what life looks like in a world without taxes.

It is natural to think of taxes as the theft of your hard-earned money. Imagine how much richer we all would be if the government didn’t take so much of our income. But the proper way to view taxes is to think of them as the fee you must pay for the privilege to live in a safe, prosperous and educated society.

Taxes don’t make you poorer, they make you richer and safer. It is hard to grasp this backward logic, mainly because we can’t conceive of what life looks like in the “dream world” of no taxes. If you can’t visit the chaos of a tax-free country, you can still respect Jesus’s prescription for the ideal society: love your neighbor and pay your taxes.

Our national holiday should be April 15, not July 4. America is a great country not because we declared independence from Great Britain. We are great, because we know how to collect taxes. George Washington mobilized an entire army to defend tax collectors, so the least we can do to honor the real meaning of April 15 would be to include a note to the IRS in our tax return this year that says: “Thank you for making the USA a great place to live.”

Even better, you should ask yourself: What would Jesus do? He would take a tax collector to dinner on April 15.

Emil Nagengast is associate professor of politics at Juniata College.