With taxes we buy civilisation

I did my tax this week. My affairs aren't particularly complicated so using etax to do my return takes me about half an hour every year. And it's not a half hour I grudge. I think self-assessment is a great thing: an exercise of freedom, a guarantor of privacy, a symbol of trust between state and citizen. It's not every citizenry that can boast these. Nor is it every government that gives back overpaid tax to the tune, annually, of over $10 billion.

I also think, with Professor David Rosenbloom of NYU, that tax is important. In an entertaining lecture at Melbourne Uni Law School recently, he began

“by taking for granted that taxation is here to stay. (It is something of a statement in itself that we have to begin there, but we most definitely do.) Everyone wants government, even those who speak incessantly of shrinking it. Most of the folks who talk that talk are happy to enlarge government; they just operate on the assumption that the military is not government. We know today what a society truly without government looks like: it looks like Somalia, and really, who wants that? So we organize ourselves in units and expect those units to provide things we cannot efficiently provide on an individual basis.

This government thing costs money. We want public expenditures, and so we are going to need public revenue...There are only a limited number of ways of obtaining the necessary revenue. We can borrow it. We can run a national lottery. We can inflate the currency. These strategies are all problematic, for all sorts of reasons. Taxation is more rational, and certainly more subject to control. So there will be taxation.”

Nobody likes fiscal waste, but tea partiers who advocate slashing tax (and thus hamstringing government) cannot have adequately foreseen the social and economic wasteland they would thus create. The key is in Rosenbloom's succinct rationale: governments 'provide things we cannot efficiently provide on an individual basis.' Roads, schools, hospitals, parks, libraries, universities, care for the sick and the poor and the elderly. Yes, we could do all these better, but not by taking them from democratically elected governments and entrusting them to the richest guys in the room. Who, as we've seen, are not necessarily the smartest.

This approach, and indeed the flawed reasoning of the tea party, assumes that money is the basis for both individual happiness and collective wellbeing. It's good for both, but only when harnessed to values; individual in one case, shared in the other. My values, and those of my country, suggest to me that giving 30 per cent of my income to the government, who will use it to provide services for me and my countrymen that we could not provide ourselves, is no bad use of my money. Especially when every August they give some of it back.