"I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization.”
Mr. Justice Holmes was, in the modern vernacular, virtue signaling.
It is difficult to imagine that anyone, even someone as patriotic as he, actually enjoys turning over a substantial sum of money to be used however Congress or the state legislature sees fit. Any more than a person smiles when paying their mortgage or gets a warm feeling at the checkout after a major grocery run.
But the aphorism still rings true. Even if the majority of the Utah Legislature is deaf to it and wants you to think it is doing you a favor by reducing the level of civilization in which we all will live.
If you want civilization — or a house, or groceries — you have to pay for it. The belief that you will get them for free is groundless.
As it is a flawed critique of many liberal ideas, as when, say, Democratic candidates for president are belittled for promising free health care, or free college, when what they are really saying is that more of the taxes you already pay should go to supply things for the common good rather than line the pockets of the military-industrial-fossil-fuel-health-care complex.
Something else that is groundless is at the core of modern conservative thinking — or propaganda. It is the idea that as government becomes less powerful, the individual will become proportionately more powerful.
It is an emotionally powerful argument, but there is little about it that is true.
Power, by its nature, does not diffuse. Like particles of galactic dust which eventually coalesce into stars, or globs of petroleum which form in the ocean after a tanker sinks, power collects upon itself.
If the power of government, of civilization, is broken up, it will never remain atomized throughout society in such a way that all of us get our piece. It will inevitably collect again, somewhere, almost certainly into the hands of those who already have a little more power (money) than others.
We work against this by setting up democracies, which recognize the truth about power and seek to harness it for the benefit of all. Or by finding ourselves living in oligarchies, where the few recognize the nature of power and the rest are just happy that the government hoards power for the benefit of people who look like us to the disadvantage of people who look like them.
The leaders of the Utah Legislature, like many modern conservatives, bank on us believing the fairy tale that tax cuts make us all rich.
No, they don’t. They may make the already rich a little richer, but they make the rest of us substantially poorer by robbing us of the ability, an ability that we only have when we act in common, to build civilization.
Tax cuts for the sake of tax cuts deny the vast majority of us the power to buy sufficient amounts of schools and roads and public safety services and environmental regulations and people to crack down on those abominable payday loan outfits.
(Oops. Forgot. This is Utah. That last one will never happen. In fact, the part of the new tax law that substantially hikes the sales tax levied on groceries is very much in the spirit of those disgraceful legal loan sharks.)
The annual savings from the income tax cuts the Utah Legislature just rammed through, and which Gov. Gary Herbert is unfortunately eager to sign, will be a tiny blip for most of us. A slightly bigger bottom line on our pay stubs which will flow through our direct deposit and evaporate into our automatic payments without most of us even noticing it was ever there.
But when our schools become even more overcrowded, the disparity in test scores between rich neighborhoods and poor ones becomes even more pronounced, our highways that much more congested and our air no cleaner, we will notice that.
The idea that people contribute their resources to create things they could never do as individuals may be described, not inaccurately, as socialism. But it is also the core of capitalism.
It’s how corporations work, leveraging investments and selling stock to reach the critical mass of financial power necessary to create U.S. Steel, or General Motors, or Apple. And those titans of industry who grasp the concept of investment are the very ones who notice when a state does not invest properly in its schools and its other public services when they are looking for places to start up or expand.
There are states where high levels of taxation scare off the wealthy and the creative. Or at least give the rich cover to play one state against another for tax advantages. Utah is nowhere near that point, with or without the latest round of tax cuts.
Tax cuts that won’t help the individual but will weaken us as a civilization. And that, apparently, is the point.
George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, will be investing his tax cut in donuts and chocolate milk.