The Vexation of Taxation

America is weird. Nobody likes taxes, but everyone benefits from the services funded by the taxes.

PUBLISHED FEB 8, 2022 12:00 A.M.
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Keep your eyes on the road, Hank.

Keep your eyes on the road, Hank.   Shutterstock/studiostoks   Standard

There's a great scene in Atlas Shrugged in which steel tycoon Hank Rearden and railroad tycoon Dagny Taggart are tooling down the interstates, highways and county roads of the heartland in Hank's spiffy little Hammond convertible, searching for the Twentieth Century Motor Company.

Throughout the book, dozens and dozens of pages are expended in diatribe against taxes, and it's the hatred of taxes (among other things) which bonds Hank and Dagny first as business colleagues, then as lovers, now cruising convertible-top-down through Wisconsin.

I always get a chuckle when I read this section (Atlas Shrugged is a dog-eared favorite) because of course,  You're driving on tax funded roads, Hank!

Publically funded infrastructure surrounds us to the extent that we become blind to it and take it for granted. It's like air. We disconnect a benefit from the source, and worse, once we're done utilizing a benefit, we're reluctant to extend or share the benefit with others.

Thus property-owning seniors who are products of the public school system voting against school bonds or education taxes, or car commuters glibly saying "nobody uses public transit" or people who purchase books from Amazon wondering why they should fund public libraries when "nobody is using them."

Living a few blocks from the downtown Santa Cruz Metro station, I can attest that people—a lot of people—use public transit; and having worked for years in an office across the street from the downtown Santa Cruz Library Main Branch, I can attest that people—a lot of people—use the public library.

At California Local, our formula for citizening is Discover->Connect->Act, which is a counter to how the vexation of taxation and the language of politics can result in a Forget->Disconnect->React dynamic, and the politics of no under a banner of "I'm done, I got mine."

The politics and competition around limited resources can lead us to forget the others, to disconnect from our enlightened self-interest as individuals, and to react to initiatives benefitting others in a zero-sum fashion.

For instance, it's in our enlightened self interest for schools to be well funded so children grow into literate adults. It's in our enlightened self-interest for a multi-modal transportation system to include public mass transit to allow the workforce to get from their homes to their places of employment, and the students to their classrooms—and to do so in the most cost-effective manner as possibble. Fifty people in one large vehicle are cheaper to move than 50 people in 50 vehicles.

It's in our enlightened self-interest for everyone to have access to housing and sanitation to avoid the public health, safety and environmental consequences of homelessness and housing insecurity.

And so on.

The genius of democracy is that when citizens are taxed to fund public services, the citizenry is responsible for providing oversight in the administration of those funds.  Participating in that oversight process is certainly in our enlightened self interest.

What feels like the Vexation of Taxation is really an Invitation to Citizen.

We make it easy.

Discover information about the workers and working of your community. Our listings of local newsrooms and information sources make it easy to stay informed about what's happening locally. Our Explainers inform you about how things work.

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