As Americans rush to file their tax returns, there's no better time to reflect on how long we've been doing this. Monday will mark our 100th year of struggling with our tax forms and rushing them to the post office in time for a midnight deadline.
Of course, that image is almost quaint, nowadays. Few of us are rushing to the post office for anything anymore, let alone tax filing; electronic returns have become the new normal. And very few of us struggle with completing those returns on our own; most people use software or get help from a professional preparer.
There's a real loss in all this progress. As I've argued before, a little bit of pain can be a good thing when it comes to paying taxes. Pain in the wallet, of course, is inevitable, since most of us have to part with some cash (notwithstanding arguments about the "47 percent," most of whom are, in fact, paying in some fashion).
But I mean the other kind of pain -- the pain in the butt that comes with actually completing your tax return. Filing represents a moment of genuine engagement between tax payer and tax imposer. In an ideal world, it creates a moment of reflection, a chance to reassess and revisit the social compact that undergirds taxation of any kind.
Oliver Wendell Holmes is famous (among policy wonks, at least) for describing taxes as the "price of civilization." But that deeply pro-tax formulation is also seriously incomplete. It tells us why we should pay taxes, but it doesn't shed any light on how much we should be paying.
And how much is actually the crucial question. Not many of us are willing to go all the way with the "taxes are theft" argument that's so popular among the purer sort of libertarian. Most Americans can agree that we should pay something for government. But there's plenty of room for debate about whether the government needs a pound of flesh or could scrape by with just 7 or 8 ounces.
Indeed, our whole national argument about taxes -- we pay too much! They pay too little! -- is misplaced. At best, it's a proxy for the real argument we should be having. To use Holmes's terms, we argue endlessly about the price when we should be debating the civilization.
Of course, no one wants to have this argument. Republicans avoid it because they read the polls and know the truth: most Americans like those parts of civilization that cost the most. Parts like Medicare, for instance, or Social Security. Democrats, on the other hand, are perfectly happy to talk about these programs, and even willing to defend their cost (they will certainly defend these programs against efforts to reduce that cost).
But Democrats don't want to talk about all the rest of the civilization our taxes might be paying for (if only we were actually imposing them in appropriate amounts, rather than borrowing to pay the bills). Democrats shrink from a vigorous defense of government in its non-entitlement forms.
Sure, Democrats pay lip-service to infrastructure, education, and the like. And a few brave progressives, like Syracuse University economist Len Burman, will even acknowledge that such vital spending is threatened by ever-rising entitlement costs.
But for the most part, Democrats are profoundly unwilling to make a holistic case for activist, progressive government. They won't -- or can't -- defend the value proposition implicit in Holmes's statement: that we should pay the price for progressive government because progressive government is worth it.
This failure to make the case for government -- and the taxes we need to pay for it -- is deeply embedded in modern Democratic politics. President Obama's well-established opposition to tax hikes for anyone but the rich is the clearest, and most damaging, illustration of this failure. (Yesterday's FY 2014 budget proposal provides a good example.)
Every so often, Obama will be moved to impressive rhetorical heights in defense of progressive government. A government that actually does something, that looks out for people, that tries to build the foundation for a prosperous future, that makes prudent investments in education, infrastructure, and research. It's a powerful and compelling vision.
But after explaining why this sort of government is so important, Obama rips the heart out of his own argument, at least implicitly. This new sort of progressive government is really important. But apparently not so important that most of us should actually pay anything extra for it.
If something is worth having, it's worth paying for. And if it's not worth paying for, then it's not worth much.
Right now, we're not even paying for the government we have, much less the government we need. But until Democrats are willing to acknowledge that fact -- that civilization can't be purchased on the cheap, at least not indefinitely -- then the progressive vision for America is destined to fail.