A news story a few months back suggested that some of our President’s fortune was amassed by cheating on taxes. Another story suggested that although Jared Kushner has an income significantly higher than mine (ha ha), he has not paid any federal income tax in a while and that his failure to do so may have been legal. The stories made few waves. If you even noticed them, you may have quickly forgotten them. Stories about the rich cheating on taxes or avoiding them are commonplace. Every so often, we learn of someone prosecuted for cheating on taxes, but a common reaction is that person simply got too greedy, and we don’t give it much thought.
On the other hand, legal tax dodging is expected. People are chumps if they don’t seek to pay the least amount of taxes legally required, right? And if they push the envelope too far, and the IRS determined that they underpaid, we don’t normally think of them as bad guys. We expect people to walk on that tax-no-tax line. (Of course, with the big cuts to the IRS over the last decade, the chances of being caught for underpayment is increasingly unlikely.) We certainly don’t want our “public servants” to be chumps, and therefore we don’t criticize them for seeking to avoid taxes. It would probably count against candidates for public office if we saw their tax returns and they “stupidly” paid too much to the government.
But when I hear about the tax dodgers, I think of the famous passage from John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
I have mixed feelings about this oft-praised statement. It just isn’t right, or at least it is misleading. It suggests a dangerous false dichotomy, and it comes close to presenting a totalitarian sentiment that the overriding responsibility of citizens is to serve the state.
Our country does not exist simply to be supported by its populace, or at least our government does not. Our government was formed not for the citizens to serve it but for it to aid its citizens in leading productive, happy, prosperous, and safe lives. Kennedy was wrong to suggest that you were doing something wrong if you asked what the country was doing for you. It was almost as if JFK forgot the Preamble to the Constitution, which states that the United States was being formed to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty. . . .” The government is there to serve the people.
There is nothing wrong in asking what your country does for you, but it should be asked with open eyes. Many, because they don’t use food stamps or grow federally subsidized crops, think that the government does nothing for them. Presumably they don’t work in a defense industry, don’t have government assisted flood insurance, don’t get social security or medicare, don’t have federal student loans, don’t work for the federal government, don’t drive on the interstate highway system, and don’t bank at an FDIC institution. And, of course, neither do they benefit from our national defense.
Our government helps us in so many ways that we seldom think about it. Try a thought experiment: However successful you are, imagine that you have the same intelligence and skills but had been born and raised in Cambodia. How successful, how prosperous, how happy, how safe would you be compared to now? Doesn’t the United States and its government give you a lot?
President Kennedy really should have said that it was all right to ask what the country does for you, but only if you accept honest answers to the question. With the blessings we get from living in the United States in mind, then we should ask what we can do for our country. If we get much from the country–and we do–we should give back to the country.
How does one give back to the country? Too often all we think about is military service, but there are many different means of governmental and non-governmental public service. And we also give to our country when we obey the law and when we pay our taxes. So why our cynical attitudes about taxes? If you volunteer for the military, you are patriot. If you volunteer extra taxes, you are weird. If you evade the military when there is conscription, you are considered unpatriotic. An art dealer, Mary Boone, was recently sentenced to 30 months for evading taxes of more than $3 million between 2009 and 2011. (In case you are wondering, tax evasion prosecutions are rare and seldom severely punished. In 2017, 584 tax evaders were sentenced to prison with an average prison term of 17 months, according to a recent report in Axios.) Many in the art world and beyond gave support to her. Would she have received this support if they had seen her crime as an act to intentionally harm the United States, one that showed that she was deemed unpatriotic, one that made her akin to an Army deserter? A person who evades taxes, however, while having made a misstep, is not labeled unpatriotic. Military deserters may provoke the cry that they should lose their citizenship but not the tax evader.
And the tax avoider we actually applaud.
So. What can you do for your country?