This time of year it is useful to recount the parable of the angry taxpayer (from the VERY New Testament). Tip O'Neil, the colorful congressman from Massachusetts who said "all politics is local," used to recount a version of this.
The taxpayer woke up one winter morning feeling upset about his taxes. He decided to travel to Washington to complain directly to his Congressional representative and attend a Tea Party rally.
He turned on the radio to listen the weather report, provided by the National Weather Service. He heard the city snowplow go by, clearing his street. He made a cup of coffee with clean water.
He cooked up some eggs and bacon for his family, food products that were certified by the meat inspectors at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It never crossed his mind the possibility that his family might be poisoned.
He kissed his children goodbye as they waited for the school bus to take them to the local public elementary school and high school. His oldest daughter hoped to attend college and was applying for financial aid loans and grants, like the ones he received a generation earlier. On his walk to the subway, he dropped her application letters in the U.S. Post Office mailbox.
He passed the senior housing community where his dear mother lived. He didn't worry for a second about his mother, who had quality health care paid for by Medicare, a monthly Social Security check and a secure, friendly, and affordable community to live in.
He took the subway to the airport, half the cost of his ride subsidized by state and federal transportation funds. He then flew to Washington on a plane inspected by Federal Aviation Agency inspectors, after passing through security provided by the Transportation Security Administration.
On his way to the U.S. Capitol, he stopped for an hour at the Smithsonian Museum of History, celebrating our nation's inspiring and unique history. Admission was free to all and thousands of school children were flocking into the museum when he departed. When he got lost, a courteous national park ranger gave him directions to the Congressional office building.
Finally, the taxpayer arrived at his meeting with the Congressman. "Congressman," he said, pounding his fist on the table, "I don't get anything for my tax dollars!" Later, he attended the Tea Party rally calling for less government and lower taxes.
This parable reminds us of all the things we take for granted in modern society, services we don't usually notice until they go away. We like to grumble about "government bureaucrats," but expect someone to be at our house within 5 minutes after calling 911. We want the library book on the shelf, the road to be plowed, the teachers to be well-trained, the floors of the elementary school to be clean -- yet only pay attention when things aren't going our way.
None of this takes away from the value of our faith communities -- in strengthening communities, ministering to those in need, and providing services to the body and souls of our neighbors. The principle of subsidiarity -- solving problems at the most local level possible -- is essential to healthy communities and appropriate levels of government in our lives.
But living in the U.S., we tend to take for granted the advanced public infrastructure and knowledge institutions that our ancestors built for us. We're like fish who swim in an ocean of public-funded services and don't see the water around us.
Imagine if the taxpayer in the parable was miraculously transported to an impoverished country where clean water, emergency services, and education are only available to the wealthy. This invites us to not only see what we have -- but also to consider what kind of society we'd like to become.
Of course there is government waste and inefficiency, as there are in all human enterprises. But the answer is more democratic engagement, not less. Complaining and withdrawing from our responsibilities as citizens will only make things worse. Instead, we should get together with others who share our concerns and work to improve things. It is after all our government, empowered by the constitution to provide for the "general welfare."
Taxes are the way we pay for a healthy commons of infrastructure, public and community institutions, and basic quality-of-life services and safety services that make our lives better.
This April 15th and Tax Day, let us reflect upon this parable and share it with others.
Chuck Collins is co-founder of Wealth for the Common Good, a network of business leaders concerned about tax fairness. He is co-author with Mary Wright of The Moral Measure of the Economy (Orbis Press). He recently published Tax Day Talking Points.