Pay, But Not Quietly

Rabbi Amitai Adler
March 25, 2013
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When TS Eliot wrote that “April is the cruellest month,” I doubt he was thinking of Tax Day, but there is little doubt that many of us feel that Eliot’s famous words could just as well apply to April 15.

Nobody likes having to pay taxes. Nobody likes having to give up their hard-earned money, especially to faceless institutions. And the government doesn’t make it any easier for us, given that all too often, they don’t seem to be doing a very good job using our tax dollars wisely.

As with most things, we grudging or reluctant taxpayers and the demanding government are both right and both wrong, each in some measure, in some different ways.

Rav Hershel Schachter of YU suggests that we halachically classify the relationship between governed and government in a democratic republic like ours as ashutafut, a kind of partnership or joint endeavor. And I am pleased to employ a sentence I rarely get to use, when I state that I believe Rav Schachter is quite right.

Government, in a democratic republic like ours, is not supposed to exist for the purpose of enriching one person or a small handful of people, but for the purpose of creating a strong and vibrant framework for our free society. While the absolute monarchs of ancient times were free to use their taxes as they saw fit, living in luxury and building ostentatious monuments to themselves first, and using whatever was left over for such national infrastructure or social welfare as they felt inclined to support, our government is supposed to use their revenues to “promote the general welfare, provide for the common defense, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity”– those blessings of liberty presumably including liberty’s brethren among the natural rights of human beings set forth in the Declaration of Independence: “life,” and “the pursuit of happiness.” American government, as our greatest president noted, is “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Those we elect from within our own midst to lead us are elected– in theory– under the presumption that, being of the common folk, they will see that the needs of the common folk are cared for.

We live in a capitalist society. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. No other economic system has been able to consistently create national wealth while at the same time promoting innovation and invention. But capitalism requires a framework of boundaries, not only involving social aid and welfare assistance programs (nutritional aid, unemployment, health care, higher educational assistance, emergency housing for the homeless, etc.), but also involving government services of infrastructure (roads, bridges, power grids, information grids, water and sewer services, repairs of public works, etc.) and social services (emergency services, public schools, libraries, postal services, etc.). And all of these require that we participate not only intellectually and politically in our government, but financially as well. And the simple mathematics of finding resources and using them should make it crystal clear that how much a person financially contributes to our government should depend on how much wealth and income that person has: the very poorest among us should have only the merest token of a tax burden; the very wealthiest among us should shoulder the lion’s share of the tax burden, as they have the money, and they made it under the protection and care of our society, using the privileges, the rights, the labor, and the other opportunities that our nation provides. And those in between very poor and very rich should pay the maximum of what they can reasonably afford to pay.

This is our part of the social contract here: the people of the United States are bound together, regardless of race, creed, and ethnicity, because of our commitment to the project of constitutional democratic republicanism in America, and the ideals upon which the project claims to be founded. And in service to that binding social contract, we contribute not only time and thought and creativity, but wealth also.

However, the reverse obligation is that our government is bound– ethically, morally, politically, and socially– to use our tax dollars responsibly. That means that it is inexcusable and reprehensible of Congress to dole out monies to idiotic pork-barrel projects while we are in the middle of a recession, with high unemployment, woefully inadequate health care, miserably inadequate welfare services and public education, and a badly outdated and slowly crumbling infrastructure. And it is just as inexcusable and reprehensible to fund a bloated and swollen military budget, in service of pointless wars and military actions without defined goals and parameters, when we are, if not the world’s only superpower, at least the dominant member of a very small club of superpowers.

The social contract works both ways. And if our government had been responsible enough in its financial management for it to have a surplus of funds in the national treasury, I might even say that there is a place of the withholding of taxes as a form of protest. Unfortunately, for absolutely no defensible reasons, there is no such cushion of funds on which we can depend that the country can be run while tax-withholding protests play out, and bringing the nation to a halt for lack of revenue is likely to do nothing but harm, especially to the poorest and most vulnerable among us.

In this way, I think we need to regard the paying of our taxes like giving tzedakah. One must give tzedakah. If one has a choice and the knowledge, one does not give to any save those whom one knows for certain are truly in need; and not to any institution which one cannot trust unreservedly to use the donations properly and not misappropriate them. But if one has no choice, and the only institution of tzedakah around misappropriates some of the funds and uses some to aid the poor, one gives, and tries to effect reforms, and hopes for the best. Whether we wish to say that there is also a responsibility to pay taxes because of dina d’malchuta dina, or because the social contract is a de facto shutafut whose conditions we must honor, we know that if we do not pay our taxes, the poor will suffer even more than they already suffer, and lives will be lost because of lack of public repairs and emergency services. So even though we know that currently, much of our tax money is being misappropriated, we still pay our taxes, honestly and to our full ability according to our wealth, because of the mandatory nature of giving tzedakah, and because ofpikuach nefesh.

But we also should be seeking to effect governmental reform. In no small irony, it is in part to the Reform movement we should all look for modeling that behavior. Alone of the movements of Judaism, they have a political action committee dedicated to furthering social change based on a Jewish social justice agenda. Though this is infinitely to their credit, the real question is, why are they alone in this? Why do all the movements and communities not have this? Why are there not numerous transdenominational Jewish social justice political action committees? And why are we not all engaged in helping establish and further them?

As in so many situations, this seems one more time it is appropriate to quote Rabbi Tarfon’s pithy credo: lo alecha ha-m’lachah lig’mor, ve’i atah ben chorin lehibatel mimenah (“You’re not obligated to finish the work, but you aren’t free to desist from doing it, either.”).

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