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Is Paying Taxes Patriotic?

September 6, 2012

By Ann Hollingshead

Ann Hollingshead is a Financial Transparency Coalition blog contributor, whose posts appear weekly. Formerly a Junior Economist at Global Financial Integrity, Ann is now pursuing a Master of Public Policy (MPP) from the University of California Berkeley. Follow her on Twitter: @AnnHollingshead.

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In a fiery speech to the Democratic National Convention on Monday, Mayor of Newark Cory Booker bellowed: “Being asked to pay your fair share isn’t class warfare. It’s patriotism.”

It’s a sentiment that’s been often repeated on the campaign trail in the last few weeks. Vice President Joe Biden made the same suggestion in a campaign speech in New Hampshire. “Wealthy people are just as patriotic as middle-class people, as poor people, and they know they should be doing more,” said Vice President Biden. “We’re not supposed to have a system with one set of rules for the wealthy and one set of rules for everyone else.”

To think about whether or not it is indeed true that paying taxes is patriotic, I think it’s helpful to define patriotism first.

Of course, that’s no easy task. While the vast majority of Americans consider themselves patriotic—they also all have wildly differing views on what that means.

To simplify matters into what is probably an excessively vague definition, let’s say patriotism is a “love for one’s country.”

Even with such a simple view, it’s easy to see why people manifest their patriotism in radically different ways. After all, people manifest love in radically different ways. Love, at its core, is a strong attachment. It does not imply action, just emotion. A person can—theoretically I suppose—love another from afar, without involvement in the other person’s life.

So, too, can it be with patriotism. Simply loving one’s country does not necessitate action or sacrifice, nor does it require criticism or praise. A parent will still love a child who brings home a poor report card. Love is not the same as pride.

But love can also inspire action. Love inspires us to sacrifice our own well-being for those people for which we care. Love motivates us to scold a misbehaving child, just as it stirs us to bestow acts of kindness or show signs of affection. And so it is for love of country, too. For one man, patriotism may be waving a flag above his front door, for another it is marching in protest.

But note the second part of our definition. Patriotism is love for one’s “country” and that is ambiguous, too. A country, really, is a collection of inhabitants within a physical location. And to love a country, you most like must love both of those parts. Although not necessarily its government. Those are not necessarily synonymous. Look beyond the United States and the relationship becomes clearer—does a citizen of Burma need to love his government if he is to love his country?

It is an efficient, functioning democracy and system of representation that aligns a country with its government. So, too, does a love of country align with a love of government when we feel represented. Unfortunately, in recent years in the United States, the perception of government is so tightly interwoven with the political party with an inhabitant in the White House, that our perception of patriotism varies with election cycles. For Democrats, before 2008, it was patriotic to dissent with government and Republicans who often claimed patriotism was conviction in government and its policies. And now, with the election of Barack Obama and the rise of the Tea Party—it is the Republicans who view dissent as an arm of freedom and patriotism.

This is not the picture of patriotism that—I think—any of us believe is ideal. While we may not have faith in who is in office, we should at least have faith in the process that got her there. We might not agree with his policies, but under a system of democratic representation, we must at least agree that their implementation is fair.

This is, of course, an ideal. And there are countless obstructions to democratic and representative governance, even in our own nation. But to the extent that government is representative of the country—love for the country aligns with love for the government.

And so, yes, to the extent that we love that country and wish to support it, it is patriotic to pay taxes. But it is not unpatriotic to not pay taxes. A citizen may have a responsibility to pay taxes, a legal impetus, or even a moral duty, but we cannot delegate how a person chooses to bestow his or her love. Who are we to judge the motives of a conscientious tax resister who won’t fund war?

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. We do not pay taxes out of love or honor. It is not the same kind of sacrifice as enlisting in the military. It is not a symbol like waving a flag. It isn’t even a inconvenient civic duty like voting. Because—when it really comes down to it—paying taxes is not optional.

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Disclaimer: Unless specifically stated to be the views of the Financial Transparency Coalition, the opinions expressed on this blog are solely the opinions of the individual blogger and are not necessarily those of the Financial Transparency Coalition.

  • http://www.financialtransparency.org/ E.J. Fagan

    Ann,

    I think your last sentence is the most important part. Paying taxes is not optional, for good reason. Taxes are a necessary part of civilization. We may not be happy to pay them, but we are happy that they are paid. We shouldn’t expect someone to have a smile on their face when they pay their tax bill the same way that they have one when they, say, vote. But at the same time, we can expect them to respect the collective decision by a democracy and do their duty. Tax evasion can still be morally wrong even if paying taxes is not strictly an exercise in patriotism.

    • http://www.financialtransparency.org/author/ahollingshead/ Ann Hollingshead

      My thoughts exactly.

      Moreover if we were to agree paying taxes is a “patriotic act,” it implies a certain amount of choice. What about citizens who are not patriotic? Are they absolved from the responsibility?

      And I’ll clarify, based on some discussion of this post, that I do not believe that a tax evader is being patriotic or that tax evasion is a patriotic act. Meanwhile a person can pay taxes out of a love for his country and that is a patriotic act. My point is only that patriotism is so individual, and perhaps so personal, that we cannot generalize about it.

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