"AND IT CAME TO PASS in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed." Which must have done wonders for all the world's mood. Of course, payback time always comes round sooner or later, and we know what eventually happened to the Roman Empire. Decline, followed by fall.
Hmmm. I wonder what the Goths would charge to sack the IRS.
Tomorrow may be April 15, but you're still slaving for the government. Tax Freedom Day -- the date on which the average American's total year-to-date earnings finally reach the amount he or she will have to pay in taxes -- won't roll around until the second week in May. If you and your family are anywhere near the norm, you spend more on taxes each year than you do on clothing, transportation, recreation, food, and medical care -- combined.
According to the Tax Foundation, the typical American family must allocate 40.4 percent of its annual expenses to taxes. Income taxes, sales taxes, excise taxes, meals taxes, airport taxes, capital gains taxes, payroll taxes, estate taxes, cigarette taxes, property taxes, gas taxes: 40.4 percent. That is an economic burden of staggering weight and destructiveness.
And yet there are still masochists and liberals who wish taxes were -- I kid you not -- higher. From Beacon Hill Democrats, from the Clinton White House, from the Tax Equity Alliance of Massachusetts, from the front offices of AFSCME and other bureaucrat labor unions -- even from the opinion pages of The Boston Globe -- comes a chorus moaning that Americans are undertaxed. That there are programs yet to fund, services yet to provide, needs yet to fulfill.
"I don't mind paying my taxes," they say. "I'd gladly pay more if I knew it would (pick one) wipe out homelessness/ reform education/ provide universal health care/ ensure potty parity."
Yet ask them just how high taxes should go -- if 40.4 percent isn't enough, what percent would be? -- and you won't get an answer. You'll get lectures instead. About the Twelve Years of Republican Greed. About $600 Pentagon hammers. About the threat of AIDS. I once told Michael Dukakis, when he was on one of his tax-hike jihads, how much was withheld from my paycheck each week. If that's too little, I asked, how much should it be?
His answer, I recall, was about the B-2 bomber.
Liberals like to trot out the 1904 aphorism by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.: "Taxes are the price we pay for civilized society." You want roads to drive on? Clean water to drink? Schools for your children? Then pay your taxes! With a smile, dammit!
But Holmes didn't live in a world where taxes consumed 40.4 percent of the average family's budget. Federal and state income taxes didn't even exist in 1904. And parts of society were actually still civilized then.
The claim that we all benefit from taxes is a lie. Peter doesn't benefit when he is robbed to pay Paul; he is victimized. And when, tired of being the sucker who keeps forking over his earnings and getting nothing in return, Peter starts demanding a tax-funded tidbit for himself, somebody else is victimized.
I pay my taxes because the law says I have to. But the only benefits I desire are the ones government was created for in the first place -- to protect against criminals and dangerous enemies, to maintain just and effective courts, to keep freedom secure, and to carry out vital public projects that citizens could not reasonably organize in any other way.
But I wouldn't have the gall to demand that other people give up part of their paycheck so that I can have money without working, or get a low-interest loan from a state agency, or be paid not to grow soybeans, or have my college tuition subsidized. If spending money forcibly taken from other people isn't legalized theft, it certainly comes close.
We tell it to children all the time: Just because you want something doesn't mean you have a right to take it. Libraries are wonderful. Meals for shut-ins are a blessing. Talented artists deserve encouragement, poor students need scholarships, the building of airports is key to modern travel, job training can be a boon to the unskilled.
But the best way -- and the right way -- to accomplish these good and useful endeavors, and a half-million more like them, is through cooperation and commerce and community and church. Not the punitive coercion of taxes, which nearly always gets the job done less well and more expensively.
Our mammoth national tax payment doesn't buy us more civilization, just more government. Americans today are compelled to pay in taxes so much of what we have worked for; perhaps it is inevitable that in return we now expect government to solve our problems, soothe our aches and make our dreams come true.
Government can't do that for us. We have to do it for ourselves, and for each other. In Caesar's day and in Holmes' day, civilized men and women knew that.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)