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Lorenzo Sadun

Do a good deed for democracy: Pay taxes


Monday, April 14, 2003

By law, the fourth Thursday in November is a day of national thanksgiving. April 15, on the other hand, is tax day, a day of national lamentation and complaining about the government. Thinking about what our taxes buy, however, makes me thankful on both days.

I am thankful to live in a free land, governed by the rule of law, where I can practice my (minority) religion, adopt opinions contrary to the majority and speak my mind openly. I am thankful for the armed forces that protect those freedoms from without, and for the courts that protect them from within. I am thankful for the great public works that opened the wilderness to development, and also for the public lands that are protected from development. I am thankful for the public education that my children are receiving, and for the Social Security that supported my mother in her old age.

Our collective efforts, organized and regulated by the government we select with our ballots, are the basis for the good life we lead. For this organization and regulation, we should all be more than just be grateful. Each of us has a duty to make sure that these efforts continue, and that means paying for them. Sadly, more and more people are trying to shirk this responsibility, egged on by demagogues who decry taxation as legalized theft, and who constantly seek to cut taxes with the slogan "it's your money."

Is it really my money? Did I earn it? I certainly work for my salary, but I wouldn't have a job if it weren't for the University of Texas. My wife and I have saved, and our investments have done fairly well, but that couldn't have happened if the Securities and Exchange Commission weren't keeping the markets (reasonably) honest. In truth, I can take some credit for everything I have, but I can't take full credit for anything.

Long ago, my father taught me the simple truth that everything we have -- our talents, our families, our material possessions, even our lives -- are largely a consequence of events beyond our direct control. In religious terms, they are gifts from God. There is nothing wrong with having and enjoying God-given talents, or the blessings of a family, employment, health and material wealth, but there is also a responsibility to give thanks, and to use those gifts to improve the world.

Of course, a moral or religious responsibility to act charitably does not equate to a civic responsibility to pay taxes. The first is a matter of private conscience, in which the government must not interfere, while the second is a matter of public law. However, the humble realization that "no man is an island" should lead to a willingness to do both.

In the Jewish tradition, there is a distinction between a good deed that is commanded (a mitzvah) and a spontaneous act of goodness. All else being equal, the first is considered more meritorious than the second. The rabbis explained that a spontaneous act might or might not be repeated. Fulfilling a commandment, however, is an act of humility and an acceptance of responsibility. This acceptance naturally leads to additional good deeds in the future.

It is the same with civics. Every time we willingly vote, serve on juries, and yes, pay our taxes in full, we affirm our duties to one another, thereby strengthening the democratic fiber of our society. Every time we try to avoid these duties, we undermine our democracy.

Sadun is associate professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin.


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