The Ethics of Tax Day


To the Editor:

We are now at the time of year of one of America’s great communal rituals. I am not talking about Memorial Day or Independence Day. No, it’s tax season. April 17 is the National Day of Reckoning this year, as all those with an annual income over $600 are required to report to their Uncle Sam and account for the taxes they owe.

With a tax system as complicated as ours, it is often a challenge to get it right — to pay as much as you’re supposed to without paying too much. As a member of the American Ethical Union, the federation of Ethical Humanist Societies, I am always thinking about how to apply ethics to everything we do, and that would include paying taxes.

It is perfectly legal to avoid taxes, that is to say, to go right up to edge and not pay a penny more than is absolutely necessary. Some people balk at the notion that they “owe” any taxes at all. Why, they ask, should they be obligated to pay for a government that may not represent their interests? Some people don’t like being forced to contribute to a particular governmental policy they find objectionable, like war. Some people claim that the federal government has no authority to even ask for money. The “sovereign citizen movement” claims that each person is a sovereign entity unto him and herself and no one has the authority to reach into your pockets for a piece of your action.

What this notion ignores is that democracy is built on the contributions of its citizens, on the payment of fair and equitable taxes. If democracy is indeed a system of self-governance that is based on the people who comprise it, then it is they who should kick in the wherewithal to run it. So long as we, the people, really own it, then we will own up to making sure it functions with our contributions.

In contrast, the other traditional forms of government have less legitimacy in asking people to pay the freight. In the days of monarchies, it was the King who owned everything and the people lived on the slim pickings left after the King’s rent. To pay taxes on that income would be absurd. Today, in some countries the ruling elites control the lion’s share of all national wealth and the result is the same. Where regular folks have no stake in the system, there is little impetus to support its operations.

In building a better democracy and a more perfect union, we have to remind ourselves that paying one’s fair share is an attribute of ownership. To fulfill that duty is to exercise both a pride in ownership and a duty to do a job well. The next job is to make sure that the money is well spent.

Richard Koral

Leader, Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island