Sunday, August 05, 2007

Taxing anniversaries: a moral rendering

According to the old saying, there are two inevitabilities in our lives — death and taxes. We definitely can't escape the former, but the latter wasn't always an obligation, at least as far as a federal tithe on income. lists August 5th as the anniversary of the first federal levy back in 1861. It was put in place in order to cover the costs of the Civil War, and was gradually phased out once the nation made peace with itself. An attempt to reimpose the levy was made in 1894, but the Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional. The defeat led to the passing of the 16th amendment in 1913 and we've been anteing into the US treasury pot ever since. That's a pretty simplistic summary of the battles to enact the tax, and if you've got time on your hands you can navigate the more detailed history, which is almost as involved as an IRS 1040 form.

Until George W broke precedent, war-time has always been linked to increased taxes; not that Bush's Middle East adventure hasn't exacted extra costs on our society. He's piled up national debt, and slashed social spending in order to have his war cake and eat it too. Knowing that the fragile economy couldn't survive a larger payroll tax, he shifted the burden to future generations. His re-prioritizing of spending to favor the military-industrial complex over our health, education, and welfare is also a backhanded way of imposing a war tax. You can see its rippling effects on state and city budgets across the country.

Because of this long-standing link between waging war and taxing income, paying the national levy has always posed an interesting moral conundrum for those who object to a particular conflagration's prosecution. Pacifists have been especially dogged by this ethical concern. By accepting a share of the financial obligation to fund the violence, are you either tacitly or explicitly complicit in the war itself?

Jesus famously is quoted as saying, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's." This justification of Jews paying Rome its taxes came with a caveat, however: as long as it doesn't compromise your religious obligations. Ethicists have long noodled over this problem of an individual's degree of responsibility for the larger society's actions. One person's impulses can certainly be overwhelmed by the greater social sentiment, whether for good or bad.

Standing up on principle against the prevailing winds is certainly one of the most courageous acts a man or woman can take. How best to voice that opposition will depend on circumstance and opportunity. It might mean not taking a seat in the back of the bus, not betraying someone's whereabouts to the authorities, not sitting quietly by as someone spews hate, or not paying income tax.

One interesting side note to this anniversary is that on the same date in 1966 the Beatles released one of their more intriguing albums — Revolver. Coincidentally, its first track is Taxman, which includes a lyric that should serve as caution to us all:

Don't ask me what I want it for, (ah-ah, mister Wilson)
If you don't want to pay some more. (ah-ah, mister heath)
'Cause I’m the taxman
As Adam and Eve discovered upon biting into the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, self-awareness is sometimes coupled with shame. If we dig too deeply into what our tax dollars are funding, we may just emerge red-faced upon seeing the things for which we're monetarily, and perhaps morally, responsible. After that, if we don't act, we'll only have ourselves to blame.
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