The late former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” A complex historical figure, Holmes earned a reputation as “the great dissenter” due to several high-profile cases in which he went against the grain and presented a contradictory argument to the majority opinion of the nation’s highest court.
On the subject of taxes, Holmes certainly lives up to his nickname, since it seems the only thing that anybody can agree on anymore is that taxes are bad. However, to actually think about his statement reveals what we would consider to be an inconvenient truth – that taxes are indeed the price of the modern, convenient and beautiful world we enjoy.
Taxes contribute towards many of the essential services we need to survive, from the clean water we can obtain by simply turning on a faucet to the roads we utilize to get to and from our places of work. While we would not make the argument that our tax money is perfectly utilized by governments, it is important to be wary of what could happen if these crucially important services were no longer held accountable under the public’s eye.
One aspect of what our taxes pay for that we often do not think about is to create regulations. Some argue that too much regulation constricts the free market, but others may contend that without regulations, corporations would be free to conduct business however they saw fit without exercising any concern for the potential damages of their operations. Without regulations, what incentive would a private entity have to ensure that, for example, our drinking water doesn’t contain dangerous levels of lead? Or that every road doesn’t all of the sudden become a toll road?
Those who may believe that privatization of the many basics we now pay for through taxes would result in a better deal for the average citizen should be wary of things like the increasing popularity of “convenience fees” for things like online ticket purchases, or the 25 percent upcharge for concessions at a sporting event, which exist simply because the entities selling these services know you have no other choice than to pay it, and that it will result in more profit.
While some may argue that privatization in a free market will ensure the best performing entities and service providers will rise to the top, others raise concerns about what corners they will cut while not under the microscope of public scrutiny in order to achieve that level of performance. Public scrutiny is non-negotiable when a publicly funded agency is responsible for providing a service – and that is a valuable tradeoff for your tax dollar.
More than simply preventing corporate financial abuse, taxes ensure that every citizen bears responsibility for our society, because it is their collective money that finances it. If you disagree with a public agency over a decision they make, it’s your right to dispute it and be heard. If you think an administrator is being wasteful, you have a legal right to see documents outlining their expenses, and bring those to the attention of other public oversight committees.
As much as they may seem like an implementation of government-sponsored thievery, taxes are an investment into enabling us to live in a society where we don’t have to worry about a giant sinkhole erasing the one access road into and out of town off the map – a society where we know there will be a functioning fire truck within a short driving distance from your house, and where your lights turn on when you flip the switch because an infinitely complicated network of pipelines and electrical wiring is maintained without your knowledge or understanding, simply because you contribute towards it begrudgingly.
This same philosophy goes for our public spaces. As much as we may want to believe that public spaces should be free and accessible to the public at all times, this utopian view is wholly unrealistic. Human beings take things for granted, and we must always account for the least considerate among us. Even if 90 percent of people who visit a public beach or park take great care to leave it in better condition than when they arrived, that other 10 percent can, and will, ruin it for the rest of us.
It may seem pessimistic, but who among us has not seen the state of trash at our public spaces? Save the Bay engages in dozens of beach cleanups every year, and yet the trash replenishes every season. You can find hundreds of cigarette butts in any public space if you simply open your eyes during a long walk.
It is unfortunate, but enjoying these spaces must be seen as a great privilege – one that requires significant investment to maintain. This is why, although many will grumble and complain once the Department of Environmental Management likely begins the process to raise various fees at state-owned facilities this spring, we agree with the move in theory.
Rhode Island’s most marketable and important attribute is its open spaces, and to not invest more money into these resources will only result in more money lost over time. If we as citizens have to pay a little more in order to maintain and protect these resources – and ultimately enjoy them – that is the price we have to pay.