Lunching in the sustainable urban environment the other day, I ran into Minnesota Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Kelliher. I casually reminded the speaker, a DFLer, to take note and pay the new transit sales tax on her bistro bill. She was happy to pay it, she replied.

“Taxes are the price we pay for civilized society,” she added, quoting words physically and metaphorically “carved in stone” above the portal of the Internal Revenue Service.

“Not quite right,” I responded. “Taxes are the price we pay because we are not entirely civilized.”

I’m afraid the distinction was lost on our lady of perpetual obligation, but it is nonetheless an important one. When a legislator equates taxation with civilization, the logical follow-on is that more taxation equals more (higher order) civilization. Without a publicly funded ballpark, we risk becoming a “cold Omaha,” a lesser civilization.

Equating taxes with civilization is a 180-degree view of reality.

“Taxes are, in fact, a reflection of our failure to achieve a fully civilized society,” observes the Cato Institute’s David Boaz in his book “The Politics of Freedom.” “Civilized people get what they want by voluntary means, through persuasion or exchange. The use of force to acquire property is uncivilized, and the history of civilization is the history of limitations on the use of force.”

As James Madison famously noted in Federalist 51, “If men were angels, no government would be


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necessary.” But the reality is men are not angels. Human beings (even legislators) are not (and tragically never will be) fully civilized. For some, “right” always equates with “might.” Therefore, we pay taxes to state government:

  • To protect us from force and fraud.
  • To have our civil disputes mediated in courts of law.
  • To be protected from risks imposed by others to which we do not consent and cannot reasonably avoid on our own.
  • For public goods (not private benefits) necessary for government to carry out its defined and limited obligations.At the heart of Kelliher’s misconception is a failure to distinguish between “private benefits” and “public goods,” admittedly not always a simple distinction. The problem is, policy-makers who resort to the cliché of taxes as the price of civilization generally don’t recognize that there is a distinction. “Public good” cannot simply be applied to the project de jour.The best way to understand the idea of “public good” is by contrasting it with the more familiar “private benefit.” Each of us engages in private benefit transactions when we exchange money for products and services we want. We get in a taxi, and for a fare, we enjoy the benefit of getting from point A to point B. We buy cup of coffee; we drink it, and nobody else gets to drink it. That particular cab ride and cup of coffee are not available to others.

    Public goods in support of legitimate government functions provide benefits that, unlike our cab ride or cup of coffee, don’t exclude anyone. A streetlight is the classic example: It benefits everyone and anyone equally at the same time. It would be virtually impossible and highly inefficient to limit access or proportionally charge people for the streetlight’s glow. Police and fire protection and the court system are other examples — they don’t limit discrete benefits to some at the exclusion of others.

    The policy distinction boils down to this: If a taxi ride from point A to point B is a private benefit for which an individual pays a market fare, why is a bus or light-rail ride from point A to point B a “public good” subsidized with tax dollars? The only answer is, it is a more “civilized” way to travel.

    The belief in the civilizing power of taxation unfortunately and dangerously extends beyond trains into more liberty-taxing areas.

    Beyond simply taxing to civilize us, policy-makers assume the authority to define “civilization.” Policy-makers, not parents and teachers, define and supply the education system a civilized society should have. A task force of experts, not patients and doctors, defines a civilized health care system. Planners create a transportation system that dictates development direction and lifestyle changes required for a “sustainable” civilization.

    Instead of securing and protecting individual rights, those who equate taxes with civilization use the power of government to tax the liberties they are charged to defend. The irony is that Kelliher seems to believe that is civilized behavior.

    Craig Westover is a contributing columnist to the Pioneer Press Opinion page and a senior policy fellow at the Minnesota Free Market Institute (www.mnfreemarketinstitute.com). His e-mail address is westover4@yahoo.com This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

    This commentary orignally appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Friday, August 22.