"One sure way to determine the social conscience of a government is to examine the way taxes are collected and how they are spent. And one sure way to determine the social conscience of an individual is to get his tax-reaction. Taxes, after all, are the dues we pay for the privileges of membership in an organized society."
-- Citation: Franklin D. Roosevelt: "Address at Worcester, Mass.," October 21, 1936.
Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=15201
Here are some more extended quotes; the full speech will follow.
In 1776 the fight was for democracy in taxation. In 1936 that is still the fight. Mr. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: "Taxes are the price we pay for civilized society." One sure way to determine the social conscience of a Government is to examine the way taxes are collected and how they are spent. And one sure way to determine the social conscience of an individual is to get his tax-reaction.
Taxes, after all, are the dues that we pay for the privileges of membership in an organized society.
As society becomes more civilized, Government—national, State and local government—is called on to assume more obligations to its citizens. The privileges of membership in a civilized society have vastly increased in modern times. But I am afraid we have many who still do not recognize their advantages and want to avoid paying their dues.
It is only in the past two generations that most local communities have paved and lighted their streets, put in town sewers, provided town water supplies, organized fire departments, established high schools and public libraries, created parks and playgrounds—undertaken, in short, all kinds of necessary new activities which, perforce, had to be paid for out of local taxes. ...
New obligations to their citizens have also been assumed by the several States and by the Federal Government, obligations unknown a century and a half ago, but made necessary by new inventions and by a constantly growing social conscience.
The easiest way to summarize the reason for this extension of Government functions, local, State and national, is to use the words of Abraham Lincoln: "The legitimate object of Government is to do for the people what needs to be done but which they cannot by individual effort do at all, or do so well, for themselves."
Taxes are the price we all pay collectively to get those things done.
To divide fairly among the people the obligation to pay for these benefits has been a major part of our struggle to maintain democracy in America. ...
(Readers new to this website might be surprised that Georgists will take issue with "ability to pay," as the phrase is commonly used, as a good criterion on which to judge taxation, and those same readers may have a visceral negative reaction. If you're among that group, you might take a look at this page.)
Here is my principle: Taxes shall be levied according to ability to pay. That is the only American principle.
Before this great war against the depression we fought the World War; and it cost us twenty-five billion dollars in three years to win it. We borrowed to fight that war. Then, as now, a Democratic Administration provided sufficient taxes to pay off the entire war debt within ten or fifteen years.
Those taxes had been levied according to ability to pay. But the succeeding Republican Administration did not believe in that principle. There was a reason. They had political debts to those who sat at their elbows. To pay those political debts, they reduced the taxes of their friends in the higher brackets and left the national debt to be paid by later generations. Because they evaded their obligation, because they regarded the political debt as more important than the national debt, the depression in 1929 started with a sixteen-billion-dollar handicap on us and our children. ...
For the average American we have reduced the individual income tax. Any family head who earns an income of less than $26,000 a year pays a smaller income tax in 1936 than he paid for 1932. That means that less than one percent of the heads of American families pay more than they did; and more than 99 percent pay less than they did, for more than 99 percent earn less than $26,000 per year. If you want the answer to this talk about high taxes under this Administration—there it is. Taxes are higher for those who can afford to pay high taxes. They are lower for those who can afford to pay less. That is getting back again to the American principle—taxation according to ability to pay.
You would think, to hear some people talk, that those good people who live at the top of our economic pyramid are being taxed into rags and tatters. What is the fact? The fact is that they are much farther away from the poorhouse than they were in 1932. You and I know that as a matter of personal observation.
A number of my friends who belong in these very high upper brackets have suggested to me, more in sorrow than in anger, that if I am reelected they will have to move to some other Nation because of high taxes here. I shall miss them very much but if they go they will soon come back. For a year or two of paying taxes in almost any other country in the world will make them yearn once more for the good old taxes of the U.S.A.
One more word on recent history. I inherited from the previous Administration a tax structure which not only imposed an unfair income tax burden on the low-income groups of this country, but also imposed an unfair burden upon the average American by a long list of taxes on purchases and consumption- hidden taxes.
In 1933 when we came into office, fifty-eight cents out of every dollar of Federal revenue came from hidden taxes. Leaving out of account the liquor tax—for liquor was illegal in 1933—we have reduced these indirect taxes to thirty-eight cents out of every dollar.
It is worth including the whole speech here.