Lent and Taxes – Crisis Magazine

It can be no coincidence that the season of Lent coincides with the filing of taxes. Both God and Caesar bid us to be reconciled; the former with more justice than the latter.      

It is just for a nation to levy taxes to maintain the common good. Taxes pay for public services and servants; therefore, tax laws are, in principle, just, and we have a moral obligation to obey and pay. An unjust law, on the other hand, is no law. And I would offer the proposition that the current tax system is unjust and wonder, not wholly in jest, as to whether we have an obligation to pay taxes. 

If we, as citizens, have a moral duty to pay taxes, those imposing and collecting the taxes have a moral duty to see that the taxes are collected in a just manner and spent in a just way. 

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Taxes are to pay for the common good, and a strong argument against paying taxes is that a great deal of our tax money is not paying for the common good. Our government promotes abortion and birth control at home and abroad. It operates a welfare system that has destroyed the family in large portions of our society. The current administration uses our money to flood our country with illegal immigrants, which in turn promotes the exploitation of workers, human trafficking, the sex trade, and drug cartels. None of these are the common good; they are, in fact, immoral.  

Just about anyone could find something that our government does that he considers is not for the common good, and so perhaps this isn’t the strongest argument against paying taxes. At the moment, it isn’t mine. My strongest argument against paying taxes is the nature of the tax system: the gargantuan, swollen, one-sided, heavy-handed burden it has become for the average citizen. 

The tax code runs to some 9,000 pages. (There are no pictures.) What other civic duty requires compliance to a code of such length? What other civic duty so baffles the average citizen? What other civic duty requires so much time for the average citizen, can be so mystifying in its directions, and puts the average citizen through so much angst in its fulfillment? 

What other civic duty puts the citizen so decidedly on the defensive? What other civic duty so often requires the help of paid professionals or, at the very least, computer programs, only in the hope that you got it right because if you didn’t—even if the other side just thinks you didn’t—you will pay more. Paying taxes is the civic equivalent of an extended visit to the dentist. And I apologize to the dentists. 

A civic duty should be relatively easy for a citizen to perform on his own. It should be easily understood. It should leave the citizen with little doubt as to whether he has done his duty. It should seem fair in its application and its demands. Such is the case with serving on a jury or voting (although our voting system is now also open to question). We may try to be excused from jury duty; we may decline to exercise our right to vote; but these are not complicated actions, and when we perform them there is a sense of having done something good, something right. Not so with taxes.

A civic duty should be simple and consistent. The rules should not shift from year to year. Its burden should not vary so widely from individual to individual. Its interpretation shouldn’t be at the whim of an unnamed and unaccountable bureaucrat. Its application shouldn’t be left to the adjudication of “experts” with little or no recourse for the average citizen. Not so with taxes. 

A civic duty should not be so difficult. When it becomes so, it ceases to be a moral duty. What if you had to read War and Peace before you voted? What if you had to hire your own lawyer before you served on a jury? What if, just to follow the traffic laws, you had to have a Schedule 1020A from your mechanic, a Schedule 1020B from your car manufacturer, and a Schedule 1020C from where you last purchased gas each time you got in your car? And on top of all that, what if the full force of the state and federal government was on the other side waiting to make you cough up even more if you didn’t do it right—in their opinion?  

It might be said that the average citizen doesn’t need to go to great lengths to file his taxes. But while he may not need to know all the laws, he is accountable to know all the laws. That is another argument on my side. The system is weighted to those who can afford professional help to keep every last penny from the coffers of Uncle Sam. It favors those rich enough to afford domiciles in other countries or other tax shelters abroad. 

The average citizen is so sick of the mess that he does the best he can, gets it over with as quickly as possible, and hopes he gets it right. The government is content—or hopes—that the citizen does just that, and it keeps the trimmings to itself. Have you ever received money back from the IRS with a letter telling you about all the deductions you could have taken? 

The more expertise any endeavor requires, the more it engenders suspicion, distrust, and fraud. That’s our tax system. It doesn’t engender virtue; in fact, you find every way you can to cheat the system. 

Yes, you can find a good accountant (and pay); yes, you can find the latest computer tax program (and hope and pray both you and it do it right), but in the end it is Uncle Sam’s way or the highway. I have more faith in the absolution given in confession by the most liberal and heretical priest than I have in the administration of the tax code by our government. There is simply no way that a system of laws so Byzantine, so turbid, so full of dodges and loopholes as the tax code can possibly be just. 

Again, I return to the question of the common good. Each year we go through this federal, state, and local gynecology exam with what result? Is anyone convinced the money is justly collected? Or justly spent? Does anyone have the least sense of satisfaction, of civic pride, when he writes that check to the government? Maybe the IRS should send out little stickers we could wear saying “I paid my taxes!” 

We know, though, that taxes have long since gone beyond the simple maintenance of the common good and are used for social engineering. Your taxes may be lessened or increased by the car you purchase, the type of stove you buy, what charities you contribute to, the ethnicity of your employees, or follow the asinine logic of chopping down trees to install solar panels to help the environment, and a myriad of other ways the government chooses to manipulate your behavior. It’s no longer a civic duty but civic bullying. 

The variety and stupidity of certain deductions seem like something written by the Marx Brothers. Body builders can deduct body oil; actors and actresses can deduct cosmetic surgery. A professional stripper was allowed deductions for breast implants on the grounds that it increased her tips. (That was not meant as a pun.) If you have a “guard dog,” you can deduct food, grooming, and training. (My dog is very good at guarding us against rabbits.) 

Tax courts have ruled that businesses can deduct beer used at company functions; other courts have ruled that gym memberships can be deducted if you use the gym for a diagnosed medical condition. So, I’m going to get fat while drinking beer at my business event, deduct that, and then deduct the gym membership I need for my beer gut. If this sounds ludicrous, I’ve proved my point. 

In relation to the tax system, we have become the frog which slowly dies as the water it is in comes to a boil because it has become inured to its environment. We have become so accustomed to paying our taxes and just wanting to get the nuisance over with that we don’t question the morality of it. The monstrosity of the system has numbed us into compliance.     

In relation to the tax system, we have become the frog which slowly dies as the water it is in comes to a boil.Tweet This

And that’s how they want it. Those who take our money refuse any accountability. How else can you explain the current national debt of nearly 35 and a half trillion dollars. (I couldn’t even explain what a trillion dollars is.) Where is the justice in a system that has long since abandoned responsibility? I don’t understand the justice of paying more because I make more. I won’t receive any more of the common good. 

Then there is the bait and switch of Social Security taxes where the government forcibly takes the money from you now, promising to pay you back later (if you’re alive), with less return than if you had invested it yourself, and with less worth than when they collected it. Please explain the justice of that. 

If the USCCB wanted to do some real work with social justice, they could start with the tax code. Meanwhile, I have a few suggestions. Every year I would lock each member of congress in a room for forty-eight hours, give him a copy of the tax code, and make him do his own taxes. I would then subject him to the audit of an accountant chosen by the members of his opposing political party. Any discrepancy would be subject to a one thousand percent penalty, and I would make the results public. 

I would require any increase in taxes to be voted on entirely separate from anything else. No attachments, no riders, no public projects; just a straight up or down “Do you approve of increasing my taxes?” I would also require anyone proposing an increase to explain in ten minutes or less, using words of no more than two syllables, how that increase is to be used for the common good. 

I have a suspicion that when our Lord said, “Render unto God what is God’s, and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” He wasn’t posing some grand moral question for theologians to debate; He was just saying even He couldn’t figure out taxes. 

  • Robert B. Greving teaches Latin and English grammar at a Maryland high school. Mr. Greving served five years in the U.S. Army J.A.G. Corps following his graduation from the Dickinson School of Law.

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