Across Constitution Avenue en route to the Sculpture Garden in downtown Washington, D.C., there stands a building with a faded, almost camouflaged inscription above its windows. Stop to stare with a slight squint and the inscription can be deciphered as a short quote of some sorts. This is nothing out of the ordinary, as many such buildings in the area boast lavish engravings and poetic words beautifully crafted across their marble faces.
However, in light of our nation’s recent events, this single quote must give pause to its readers. This single, eight-word quote once hidden in simplicity amongst hundreds of others now seems to scream for attention from the stone on which it was carved.
The quote is from former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and rests on the side of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) headquarters. It reads,
Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society
A year ago, the initial irony of this statement may have merely conjured a smirk or a scoff from us taxpayers who have seen a grim horizon of ever-increasing taxes and more government encroachment into our everyday lives. However, the recent IRS scandal of targeting conservative non-profit and Tea Party organizations begs a second glance at Holmes’ words and a second thought to their implications.
Taxes are a fact of life. As much as we loathe that dreaded day in the middle of April and cringe at the sight of deductions from our paychecks, most reasonable Americans understand that taxes (should) be used by the government for the betterment of its people. In a civilized society like America, citizens pay for the privilege of highway systems, Social Security (whether their own or someone else’s it seems), and now, controversially, healthcare.
Notice, however, that Holmes qualifies his statement with the word civilized. Unfortunately, the extreme subjectivism of this word creates an elusive and seemingly elastic definition, as history can attest. Even still, perhaps what can be agreed upon is that a civilized society must demonstrate consistency and fairness with the rules and laws that the society itself has put into place. This must be especially true for the highest realms of authority.
So then, what happens when these realms abuse their authority, toss civility to the way side, and contradict the very laws and limitations that have been established to restrain themselves from governmental hubris? A second component of a civilized society, accountability, must step in. The checks and balances system of our government was designed for this very purpose. No single branch has complete authority, and everyone must answer to someone.
Apparently these principles are not shared by our current governing authorities.
The IRS has been caught red handed. Both parties have denounced its targeting of conservative groups and the current administration has pledged to hold the tax-payer-funded “service” accountable for its actions. However, we have seen quite the opposite. Our country’s administration claimed to have no knowledge of the IRS’s actions until they saw the news of it along with the rest of the nation. What’s more, one of the employees who has been directly linked to the scandal was given a promotion after the news broke.
Civilized? Accountability? Nowhere to be seen.
And yet Holmes’ words still stand. Appropriately faded, easily overlooked, and passed by many. This is not a call to disband taxes. To say that the IRS’s actions debunk the civilized foundation of America and therefore we have grounds to refuse to comply with their laws is not the point. This is merely a reminder that the country we pledge our allegiance to, the country that generations have died for, and the country that our leaders serve is not exempt from nor is it above its own laws. And when unlawful acts are committed, the one whom the people voted as their leader must take a forceful stand against such incivility.
Perhaps it is time those inside the IRS’s walls step outside its doors, turn around, and look up.