“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” -Benjamin Franklin
“Taxation is the price which civilized communities pay for the opportunity of remaining civilized.” -Albert Bushnell Hart
“When there is an income tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust man less on the same amount of income.” -Plato
It happened one beautiful summer afternoon in one of those really nice Chicago suburban cities, so far north of Wrigley Field that you suspect the locals of cheering for the Brewers more than the Cubs. I was still in college, quite curious about the world, open to new ideas, eager to learn, much more likely to change my mind than, unfortunately, I am now. I was with 30 choir members from my small Christian college in Abilene, Texas, on a tour of the Midwest. The choir’s bass section, of which I was a member, was particularly strong, as I recall. Our lodging was limited to whichever families in hosting churches wanted to keep a couple of college kids overnight. If you were lucky, the families had pool tables in their basements, and looked the other way when you violated college prohibitions against drinking, dancing, and sneaking in your favorite soprano after hours (who happened to be your girlfriend).
One afternoon, I remember driving through that particularly lovely northern Illinois town on our way to meet our hosts. It was one of those towns that seemed like most anyone would want to call it home. It had that look about it—like the citizens really cared about their town and went to great lengths to make it livable. I was still emerging from a rather parochial perspective, a “smaller-than-life” Texas mentality that anything beyond the Sabine, Red, or Rio Grande Rivers must be geographically challenged, if not vastly inferior to more familiar places I had known. The hosts and I sat in their living room, gazing out upon a beautiful, but not particularly affluent neighborhood. We talked about music, movies, literature, sports, education, religion, and politics. I admitted to the lady of the house that I was impressed with her town. “It’s the best,” she told me. “It’s safe, clean, maintained, well-run, and the schools are excellent. We pay our teachers well and my children received an extraordinary public education that prepared them not just for college, but for life.” But then came an addition to the equation I am not sure I had ever heard. “Of course, our taxes are very high,” she shared, “and I gladly pay them. I want the very best for my children, my family, and my neighbors. It’s worth every penny.”
That lesson that some might frame as “getting what you’re willing to pay for” is one I would come to understand much more deeply over decades as a minister. I might put it this way: The generous life IS the abundant life. That, if you are willing to invest, to go all in—whether it’s with a faith community, a school district, a family, a social cause, a charitable organization, a local government or a small town—you, and those you love, will reap the benefits. Resources make a difference. I once heard a minister put it this way: “Our church has all the money it needs to do ministry well and make a profound difference in this world—unfortunately, it’s still in your pockets!” Even if such giving is required, as in a tax bill, such gifts do have their own rewards. Paying a “fair share” is perhaps the least we can do.
While I realize that some have already stopped reading and will dismiss me as a “pro-tax liberal,” they’d be wrong to label me as such. I’m politically moderate and economically prudent. Fiscally, I’m mostly conservative. I believe in hard work, personal responsibility, wise spending that does not exceed one’s means, and budgeting for the future. I’ve had a savings account since I was 3 years old. I started mowing lawns at age 12, worked in a hardware store every afternoon during high school, worked several jobs during college and graduate school, and paid my own cash for my first car when I was a senior in high school. I’ve contributed to my retirement every month and contributed at least ten percent of my income to charity since reaching adulthood. But, in addition to those values, I value my community. I value my country. I value the world. I want to be a good citizen, to do the right thing, and help contribute to the needs of all people. I don’t view paying taxes to create important programs that benefit others in any less positive light as I view my monthly tithe to my church.
In Plato’s Republic, there is a character by the name of Thrasymachus. I’m sure he has some good qualities and is not all bad. And I’ll bet you know people just like him. In fact, you may be a lot like him. He is basically on a mission to look out for number one. He argues that self-serving interests are not so immoral, after all. He even suggests that justice (that weighty word used often in the scriptures of my religious tradition) is really a philosophy that benefits the one in power, and that such a view is not a bad thing. Thrasymachus is one of those people who would always vote “NO” on any tax increase or renewal, even if it benefits the good of the whole. His whole good is himself. End of story. The character of Socrates, who would have been a Chicago Cubs fan had he lived in our time, makes a strong case that Thrasymachus’ attitude is one the world does not need. In fact, Socrates argues effectively that working for the common good is ultimately working in our own interest. Doing the right thing is its own reward. And it makes life better for everyone.
Considering the common good, rather than simply what impacts me and my personal finances, is not a particularly popular position these days. But popularity is often inversely proportional to morality. Here in my home parish in Louisiana, where using the word “tax” is considered probable cause for arrest, or at least expulsion from the state, you might be surprised who is looking out for the common good. Here locally, the Republican Party has endorsed a tax renewal that, any way you slice it, is going to benefit our community as a whole. It will help fund all sorts of public safety, social justice and social service initiatives. The local Democratic Party, which often gets my vote, has opposed it. This interesting development just goes to show that no one party has a corner on obstructionism or on the powerful and mostly unhelpful word “NO.” The truth is that sometimes Republicans do the right thing. Sometimes Democrats do the right thing. And Americans? Well, it is my prayer that we will always strive to do the right thing, regardless of party affiliation, or personal cost. My vote is not given just to the candidate or issue that might be most beneficial to me personally. My vote is given in the name of the whole. I don’t always succeed, but I always try to see the common good.
So, in the end, I am not afraid of paying taxes. It’s a privilege. I know that I am blessed to live in such a wonderful country and awesome community. I want my country, my state, my parish, and my town to get even better. And I’m willing to pay for it. And by the way, Benjamin Franklin, I’m not afraid of death either! Obviously, I wrote this article. –Fr. William Miller