By Jim Burklo
As April 15 approaches, I am counting the blessings that I receive as a result of paying my taxes. The long list of bargain benefits makes a lot lighter the work it takes to fill out the forms. It more than redeems the labor represented by my payments. There is no way, other than paying hefty taxes, for me to get the even heftier services that come to me in return.
To start the list, there is the IRS itself, a marvel of fund-raising efficiency in providing for the common good. For all the hype about how private charity is more effective than government, nothing could be further from the truth. Typically, double-digit percentages of the money donated to charity are expended on fundraising. But the percentage of administrative cost relative to money collected by the IRS is one-half of a percent. No business, no non-profit, no church, no synagogue in the country can match this level of efficiency. More than any other way I spend my money, my tax dollars are being spent on services more than on extracting the money to pay for those services.
Then there are the myriad positive consequences that I get from paying taxes. Sewers, schools, roads, defense forces, public health agencies, regulation of food, drugs, and banks, airports, seaports, police, firefighters, protection of wild lands, pollution control, health care, income support and housing for the poor and disabled. None of this could be provided for me effectively on the private market. There is no other way that my money could come close to stretching as far as my tax dollars reach in meeting these needs.
Almost all of these public expenditures benefit me in some significant way. And some of the indirect benefits are even more important to me than the direct ones. Government aid to low-income people protects me, because my quality of life would be much, much lower if I were surrounded every day by masses of starving people on the streets. I'm protected from deadly epidemics when low-income children get tax-funded health care. I'm served at businesses by people who can read and write because I paid taxes to educate them. I can drive hundreds of miles to visit family in just a few hours because my taxes paid for the roads.
The list of good things I receive from my taxes is much longer than I know. A fellow member of my church is paid by my tax dollars to protect critical infrastructure, such as dams and electric grids, from natural disasters and terrorism. I didn't even know there was such a government job before I met him. But when he told me what he did for a living, it was one more occasion to feel good about paying my taxes.
So far, I've put the blessings that come from my tax payments only in terms of my selfish interests. I've only bragged about how good a deal I am getting on April 15. But surely I'm doing good for other people when I sign the forms and mail the envelopes next week. Their taxes help me, and my taxes help them. Not only am I helping myself a lot when I send in my tax money, I am fulfilling a moral obligation to serve people whose needs are greater than my own. I pay more than lower-income people, and that is the way it ought to be. And those who make a lot more money rightly pay a higher percentage of income in taxes. The greater the wealth we receive beyond the basic needs of life, the higher is our relative burden of social responsibility.
I feel as good about paying taxes as I feel about paying my church pledge. All the more reason that this past Sunday, in worship, we blessed our IRS forms, just as we blessed our offerings to our church. Thank God for all the good things we do for each other through our government, and God bless the taxes we send to pay for them!
Jim Burklo is an ordained United Church of Christ pastor who serves as the Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Birdlike and Barnless: Meditations, Prayers, and Songs for Progressive Christians (2008) and Open Christianity: Home By Another Road (2000). Jim regularly blogs at The Center for Progressive Christianity.