Taxes Are Not the Mark of Civilized Society

Contra the famous quotation from Oliver Wendell Holmes, there's nothing particularly civilized about the way our governments spend the money we provide.


This year's tax day falls on Tuesday, although most Californians have a reprieve until October if they live in a county that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has deemed a disaster area due to recent flooding. On its website, the IRS tells taxpayers that it's a "win-win" to file earlier, although the only real winners are the federal treasury and your accountant.

Thanks to the World War II-era system of withholding, most Americans don't grasp the level of taxes they pay. It's an old truism that Americans might take to the streets if there were no withholding—and they had to pay the state and federal tax-collection agencies in cash at the end of the year. That way, they would know exactly how much they have to fork out to the government each year.

Even with the current setup, Americans have every reason to be infuriated by the local, state, and federal taxes they must pay. At which point my progressive friends love to quote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society." The quotation is carved above the entrance at the IRS headquarters in Washington, D.C.

There's obviously some truth in that message. We need to pay for the infrastructure, schools, police patrols, parks, and other public services that support a well-functioning society. Yet there's nothing particularly civilized about the way our governments spend the money we provide—or the money our great-grandkids will presumably pay if the feds make good on nearly $32 trillion in federal debt.

It's mind-boggling to think about how little we actually get for all that cash, especially here in California where the state government measures success by how much money they allocate for different programs rather than by how effectively those programs fulfill their stated goals. The governor always touts bold new "investments," yet would anyone argue that the funded programs alleviate any of the state's many problems and crises?

California's public schools grab more than 40 percent of our astronomical state budget, yet news reports of educational outcomes suggest that we have some of the worst public schools in the nation. Our infrastructure is crumbling and California struggles to keep the basics—water supplies, the electrical grid, and our transportation network—functioning in a tolerable manner. We spend more money on the same bloated agencies and failed policies.

Is that civilized? It's always the tail wagging the dog, as the public-employee unions that represent the people who work for government see every new dollar as something that should be divvied up among their members. For a sense of where our money goes, check out Transparent California and type in, say, "fire captain" and the first page shows 35 entries with total compensation packages ranging from $539,000 to $681,000. Do you think taxpayers are getting a fair bang for the buck?

I find it funny that Democrats still are seething over the 1978 tax revolt that led to property tax limiting Proposition 13. Yet if that initiative ever went away, and most Californians had to pay triple their current property taxes, does anyone seriously believe that officials would suddenly improve our schools and expand our freeways?

Last year, California enjoyed a remarkable $97.5-billion surplus. That excess is almost as much as the entire budget of Ireland, yet no one here has noticed any great improvements in the provision of services. Heck, the Employment Development Department squandered as much as $30 billion in fraudulent payments—and the person in charge of that agency is now up for one of the nation's top Cabinet level posts.

At the federal level, our tax dollars are a giant grab bag that, naturally, politicians eagerly spend in ways that satisfy their ideological predispositions or serve their valued constituencies. The budget is full of giveaways that only tangentially have anything to do with providing efficient public services. And there's nothing we can do about it. Nearly three-quarters of federal spending is on autopilot—for items such as "entitlements" and debt service.

Every administration, Democrat or Republican, outdoes the prior administration in spending, even if their priorities differ. The Biden administration is of course obliterating spending records. Its solution is to give the IRS an extra $80 billion—most of which it will use to step up enforcement. The agency typically targets people without the means to fight back. It's the equivalent of searching the sofa cushions for loose change when you can't pay the mortgage.

The Left always blames rich people for not paying their "fair share," but in California the wealthiest five percent pay 70 percent of income taxes, per a recent report. The problem isn't the greed of people who fork over their hard-earned money, but the insatiable appetite of government. So don't feel guilty when you pay your taxes this week. You have every right to find the system uncivilized.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.