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Time to Collect 

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Forget the eternally worn saw about death and taxes. Believe it or not, that sizable chunk of change you hand over to the government has spawned enough one-liners for more than one television late show. Just check out the “Tax Quotes” section of the Tax History Project’s Website:

“The avoidance of taxes is the only intellectual pursuit that still carries any reward,” intoned economist John Maynard Keynes. “If you are truly serious about preparing your child for the future, don’t teach him to subtract—teach him to deduct,” said Fran Lebowitz. “It is seldom given to moral man to feel superior to a tax lawyer,” wrote Anthony C. Amsterdam.

Missives like that have all the power and spunk of Voltaire’s famous quote about another institution that endures along with taxes—marriage. “Marriage,” the French sage wrote, “is an extremely long, dull meal at which dessert is first served.”

But back to the point. The Tax History Project may well be one of the least consulted Websites out there, if only because most of us simply like to pay our taxes (or not) and move on. That would be a mistake. Not because we find it interesting that the U.S. tax due-date has changed over time from March 1, when the federal income tax was first instituted in 1913, to April 15. But those who skipped history class might find it interesting, and disturbing, that Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton didn’t mess around when it came to collecting taxes. With 13,000 troops at the ready, he and Virginia Gov. Henry Lee effectively squelched a tax revolt by whiskey distillers in western Pennsylvania. Hamilton understood well that for government to govern at all it required more than a little hard-won dinero from the populace. Hamilton understood the consequences of the nation’s Revolutionary War debt, the importance of a strong financial system, and the ironclad rules of balance sheets. He also must have been tough as nails to die in a public duel with Arron Burr. After the Whiskey Rebellion, Thomas Jefferson regarded him as something of a tyrant. Tax resisters down the ages side with Jefferson.

What can’t be denied regarding taxes is that, despite all the waste of government, they still give the United States its edge as a world power. A nation’s strength is almost directly related to its power to collect. For examples of the opposite, look toward Russia and Mexico, where government collection of taxes is a far bigger challenge. These days, at any rate.

Perhaps far more interesting is the way taxes hold a mirror up to our priorities and values. How is it that Scandinavian nations maintain the highest rates of personal income tax, yet also boast strong economies? If the United States eliminates the tax on inherited estates, does that mean we value the contributions of those who don’t work over those who work and pay taxes?

Paying as little as possible is a national pastime. And while we value the sacrifices of American war veterans, we congratulate those who managed to pay no taxes at all. Our president plays that game for us, financing a war costing untold billions while attempting to make deficit-inducing tax breaks permanent. Given an array of quotes regarding taxes, Bush might have his own favorite, attributed to Leona Helmsly. “Only little people pay taxes.” For Hamilton, those might have been fighting words.

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