Joe Biden, Straw Man

Is paying taxes patriotic?


Both sides are making a big deal this election season about how they're never going to question anyone's patriotism. But clearly the moratorium only applies to guys and gals running for executive office.

Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), for instance, seems concerned about adequate patriotism on the part of people in households making over $250,000. They need to pay more taxes, he said this week: "It's time to be patriotic…time to jump in, time to be part of the deal, time to help get America out of the rut."

Could it be that Biden is a real, live, walking, talking straw man? Advocates of personal responsibility and private charity love to hold up this particular character for inspection: the guy who believes that state welfare programs exempt him from the obligation to personal charity. The guy who believes that paying mandatory taxes and making private donations are one and the same. I've always been skeptical that such a character exists. But here we have him, in the gleaming golden flesh.

Lest there be room for doubt, Biden stuck by his remarks and tacked on, "Catholic social doctrine as I was taught it is, you take care of people who need the help the most."

When Biden released his tax returns last week, many jumped on his none-too-impressive record of charitable giving. Despite income somewhere in the $210,432 to $321,379 category during the last 10 years (rich!), the Bidens have given between $120 to $995 to charity annually, between 0.06 percent and 0.31 percent of their income. The average taxpayer bringing in more than $200,000 makes over $20,000 of charitable contributions, according to the IRS.

Biden's miserly charitable giving jibes fairly exactly with the findings in Arthur Brooks' Who Really Cares? which reports that "those who say they strongly oppose redistribution by government to remedy income inequality give over 10 times more to charity than those who strongly support government intervention, with a difference of $1,627 annually versus $140 to all causes," a gap not explained away by discrepancies in religious giving. Last year, the tax returns of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) show charitable giving of 27.3 percent to 28.6 percent of his income.

The thing about charity, of course, is that it isn't and shouldn't be mandatory. Biden may have excellent reasons for not giving—perhaps he keeps his charity within his large family. Perhaps he is a secret devotee of Ayn Rand. But his remarks this week are unambiguous: For people in his income bracket, giving money to government is a good and patriotic thing to do.

Here's an option for getting extra-bonus patriotism points: The federal government has been accepting gifts since 1843—they even set up a special account for gifts "such as bequests, from individuals wishing to express their patriotism to the United States." Surprisingly, the U.S. Treasury's Bureau of Public Debt picked up $2.6 million last year from individual donations. In 2006, a 98-year-old Ohio woman even donated her entire $1.1 million estate.

Biden's Senate colleagues have taken advantage of this provision. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.) handed over a $600 tax rebate check in a fit of pique over tax cuts in 2001. "They were very generous in handing this money out to me, and I'm going to be very generous in sending it back," said the then-83-year-old chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes showed manifestations of Biden's pocketbook patriotism as well. In Felix Frankfurter's book on Holmes we learn that "he did not have a curmudgeon's feelings about his own taxes." A secretary who exclaimed: "Don't you hate to pay taxes!" was rebuked with the hot response, "No, young feller. I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization." Holmes repeated this sentiment, minus the jazzy slang, in an opinion in 1927, the same year as Buck v. Bell, the case that permitted the sterilization of a disabled woman on the ground that "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." In his opinion, Holmes justified the decision on the grounds of a kind of patriotism: "We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices."

Assigning moral credit or blame for a mandatory act—whether paying taxes, getting drafted, or forcible sterilization—gets into murky territory pretty quickly. Obviously there are a wide variety of shades of gray here, and most people who think of filling out their 1040 as a virtuous act are rightly appalled by Buck v. Bell. Plenty of other perfectly reasonable people have echoed Holmes' view through the years.

Biden also suffers from bad timing. He is speaking stirringly about the importance of patriotic citizens paying taxes while government agencies are turning around and handing enormous checks to fancy-pants Wall Street firms that failed to correctly balance their checkbooks. For those who pay them, quarterly taxes were due on Monday. At times like these, it's hard to summon a real stars-and-stripes, eagles-and-apple-pie feeling about writing that check to the IRS.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is associate editor at reason.