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No Way Out: The Structured Language of ‘Tax’ and ‘Taxes’

December 3, 2017

The American language treats our economic and material communal obligations, commonly conveyed by the term ‘taxes’, as though we are at war with one another. This linguistic problem distorts our view of shared interests. A foundational libertarian structure to our language of material obligation, via taxes, has distorted our politics. Continued recourse to that language in our political culture has trapped us in a prison-house of pain.

Here’s Merrian-Webster’s definition of “tax” (as a noun), which introduces us to the linguistic structure of the problem.

1 a : a charge usually of money imposed by authority on persons or property for public purposes
b : a sum levied on members of an organization to defray expenses
2 : a heavy demand

Note the non-neutral descriptors: charge, authority, imposed, levied, demand. The force and drift of connotation is decidedly negative.

A list of synonyms and related words provide few alternatives to the language of taking, burdens, and pain.

Synonyms of tax
– assessment, duty, imposition, impost, levy

Words Related to tax
– direct tax, personal tax
– capitation, custom(s), excise, hidden tax, income tax, poll tax, property tax, sales tax, single tax, sin tax, tariff, toll, tribute, value-added tax, withholding tax
– supertax, surcharge, surtax
– death tax, estate tax, inheritance tax
– flat tax, proportional tax

Even when we move to ‘tax’ as a verb, there is little relief (list from Merriam-Webster).

1 : to levy a tax on
2 : to make onerous and rigorous demands on (e.g. the job taxed her strength)
3 : charge, accuse (e.g. taxed him with neglect of duty)

; also : censure
4 : to assess or determine judicially the amount of (costs in a court action)

Note again the terms of force: onerous, rigorous, charge, accuse, censure.

Turning again to synonyms and related words of ‘tax’ as a verb, here’s what’s relayed by Merriam-Webster:

Synonyms of tax
– strain, stretch, try, test

Words Related to tax
– demand, exact, importune, press, pressure, push
– aggravate, agitate, annoy, bother, exasperate, gall, get (to), gnaw (at), grate, harass, harry, hassle, irk, irritate, nettle, pain, peeve, pester, rile, spite, vex

All of this makes worse the existing dark cloud of connotations.

Looking at this historically, Merriam-Webster indicates that the term ‘tax’ originated in the fourteenth century. Here’s what is provided in terms of etymology:

Middle English, to estimate, assess, tax, from Anglo-French taxer, from Medieval Latin taxare, from Latin, to feel, estimate, censure, frequentative of tangere to touch

There’s not much relief there, but that sliver of daylight around feeling, estimating, and touch provide gives me hope.

These foundational texts demonstrate that there is little way, presently, to invoke the language of tax or taxes without conjuring a cloud of evil associations.

The lesson I take from this is that any liberal, progressive, or socialist who uses the terminology of ‘tax’ has conceded the issue. There is no way out of the argument. Anyone who has a positive view of society and social obligations should use terms like, or associated with, investment, membership, responsibility, commitment, entrust, or pledge.

As a postscript, this realization of the inherent negativity around ‘tax’ and ‘taxes’ makes the following aphorism from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes all the more remarkable: “I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization.”

If taxation is the price of liberty–a sentiment also articulated by Holmes–then the American language is our prison house. – TL

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