Taxes, Rights, and Responsibilities: Part 1

Greg GarrettWell, I finished my federal income taxes, and while it wasn't a happy experience, it was certainly revealing. I claimed every loss and business expense that I could legitimately claim (there were plenty last year, alas), and for all my advocacy of our taking care of those in our society who have the least, I applied for the full refund our tax laws allow on the amount I overpaid, rather than letting the government keep it.

This doesn't make me a bad person, I hope. I had a hard year, I didn't write the tax laws, and I don't get to choose how the government spends my money even if I let them keep more of it.

And yet I experience a fairly strong twinge of liberal Christian guilt as I balance the needs of those around me against that check that is coming.

I have rights, yes.

But do I also have responsibilities?

Like Henry David Thoreau (in real life and in his essay "Civil Disobedience"), most of us object to paying taxes, yet are desirous of being good neighbors.

Beyond that abstract notion, though, it is hard to find agreement on what our taxes should do. Different countries offer us different models. Some have high taxation and a substantial safety net. Some have lower taxes and fewer services. Americans have one of the lowest tax burdens in the developed world. Is low taxation the proper policy to achieve our highest good? What should we expect from our taxes besides the highest defense outlay in the world?

The Economist—hardly a socialist rag, as I'm sure you know—has written that "All but the most hard-bitten libertarians believe that wealthy societies have an obligation to keep their poorest members out of extreme poverty, provide basic social services, and educate the young."

This is one current use of our taxes, and when we argue about such things as funding for Social Security, medical care, and education, we are trying to figure out how we might do what is right with the resources we all contribute to our common life.

But this conversation gets entangled with another compelling narrative: What about my God-given rights as an American citizen?

I know some hard-bitten libertarians who insist that most of the things we ask government to do we shouldn't, because it requires that the government deprive them of some of their rights—the right to work, to compete, to make a profit, and to keep all or most of that profit. For them, these are God-given rights.

Whether or not you think of rights in this way, all Americans tend to think in rights language that elbows for itself as much territory as possible. We demand the right to bear arms or the right to marry; the right to be left alone and the right to earn a living wage; we demand the right to be happy, as we understand happiness.

All of this is a part of our reliance on a liberal (with a small "l") ethics almost all of us subscribe to, whether wittingly or not in Western culture. As Stanley Hauerwas has pointed out, the dominant characteristics of our ethical discourse now center on "freedom, autonomy, and choice as the essence of the moral life" (The Peaceable Kingdom, 7). In such a discourse, freedom becomes our highest good: freedom of, freedom to, freedom from.

It was this emphasis on American freedoms language that Kristin Schaal satirized on "The Daily Show" a couple of weeks ago. In her coverage of a bill to redefine the always-horrific act of rape so that women who were not "forcibly raped" could not receive a federally-funded abortion, the sketch moved at last to what some Americans consider the "worst kind of rape": the use of tax dollars to pay for federal programs they do not support—or do not think government should provide. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry as Kristin described those poor victims of "money rape" who must lie back and take it "while their bank accounts are violated over and over and over again."

Being taxed—particularly being taxed for things with which we disagree, but honestly, just being taxed—has always been an irksome thing for Americans.

2/17/2011 5:00:00 AM
  • Mainline Protestant
  • Faithful Citizenship
  • Mainline Protestantism
  • politics
  • Rights
  • Responsibilities
  • Taxes
  • Christianity
  • Greg Garrett
    About Greg Garrett
    Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post,, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.