Today’s amendment, the 16th, was the first passed in the 1900s. And it’s a doozy. The text reads as follows:
The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.
There you have it. The establishment of what has come to be a permanent feature of the American life: the income tax. While the amendment did not create the idea–there had been an income tax during the Civil War and briefly in the 1890s–it did codify it and make it constitutional.
The Sixteenth Amendment makes me think of a few different things. First, it reminds me that there was a point at which our government was substantially smaller and less involved than it is today. Without an income tax, it would have had to be. There are a lot of other factors at work, but this is definitely one of them. Our world was different in days gone by. Even with an income tax, it wasn’t until the New Deal and the Second World War that things began to change into a shape that would be recognizable today.
Second, thinking about the income tax also reminds me that taxes can be a good thing. Before I’m stoned for political heresy here, let me share a little quotation from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: “I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization.” Though I’m not sure I’d proclaim the statement with unfettered glee, it does tend to represent my position on taxation. Simply put, taxes are necessary for our society to function. Roads, bridges, police, societal safety nets, regulatory and safety commissions, the military: all of these things are provided for by taxes. If all of us got away with paying them, there would be nothing with which to build or maintain the civilization in which we live. No taxes means every person for themselves. It means anarchy.
Third, and finally, I realize that for most people it isn’t taxes proper that are the problem, but the amount of taxes we are forced to pay or what they are used for. Should our taxes be this high? This low? I mean, we like bridges in general, but is this bridge necessary? Why do we need so many police officers in our town? Do we really need healthcare from the government? Should my taxes pay for the invasion of country X? In this way, I think, the income and other taxes as a fact of American life have served to make us more involved in our democracy. If there were no income (or sales, property, or whatever) tax, we’d have a lot less invested–quite literally–in our government and society. It would feel extraneous to us rather than constituted by us.
So, then: taxes as a form of participatory democracy. How about that?