The only free lunches are Up There, not Down Here


PROPHETS of gloom and doom have never been popular in the United States, but I have to confess it isn't easy to stay away from jeremiads in the face of what is being said about taxes in this country.

It's as if most of us have forgotten that the reason we have taxes is to pay for the things that make life worth living -- things like schools and highways and parks and health care and security, just to mention a few.

One of the reasons for the chaos in Washington is that Congress J. HerbertAltschulland the administration are afraid to raise taxes in an election year. And most of the callers I have been hearing on the radio talk shows are furious over the prospect. Too many taxes, they say, and besides, the wrong people are being taxed.

Meaning themselves, I guess, although no one actually says it's OK to tax the other guy if you leave me alone. Instead, people seem to believe the federal budget can be balanced by cutting some (unidentified) services.

Which ones, I wonder: schools or highways or parks or health care or security?

Of course we spend too much money on "defense," and of course we spend too much money on the interest on the national debt. And on a few other items.

But it is very difficult to make huge cuts in defense, and if we did, many thousands of Americans would be thrown out of jobs, and that would mean even less federal revenue and probably an even deeper recession than the one we are bumbling into.

The only possible way to reduce the fabulous national debt is to raise the money to start paying it off -- and that means higher taxes.

So why the howls from the public? Why the campaign in Maryland to put a crippling cap on property taxes? Why the cowardly vote in the House against the budget compromise? (It wasn't a perfect solution, but what compromise is?)

I can think of several explanations, and none of them is encouraging. Too many Americans want something for nothing, meaning services without paying for them. Or, perhaps even more selfishly, they want somebody else to pay for them.

There is little doubt that most members of Congress who voted against the budget compromise did so out of fear that if they didn't, they wouldn't be re-elected in November. They had been listening to the talk shows, too, and they were afraid to risk losing votes.

Such courage!

No one can deny that there are many things wrong with our tax structure. The rich get too many tax breaks and pay out a smaller percentage of their income in taxes than do the poor or the middle class. The burden needs to be shifted so that those who can afford it pay the greatest share.

And on the expenditure side, defense costs are absurdly high, especially since the winding down of the Cold War. The interest ought to be repaid rather than increased. An elemental rule: When you don't balance your budget with higher taxes, the interest goes up.

Honest taxpayers ought not to have to pay for the elegant houses and vacation trips enjoyed by the savings and loan swindlers. Nor ought taxpayers have to foot the postage bill for congressional campaign literature.

Even so, we must pay taxes. Our government is designed to be not only for the people but also of the people. And that means we have to pay for what we get.

President Bush didn't start the opposition to taxes, but he sure did give that opposition one enormous -- and very harmful -- push in his infamous "read my lips" message. He knows better, too, but he wanted to be elected more than he wanted to level with the voters. Remember that he once called the no-tax, trickle-down theory "voodoo economics."

Taxes for Americans are not the highest in the Western world; they are among the lowest. Naturally, it's the same with services. We receive fewer services than do other countries.

Medical care is free or at least very inexpensive in all other Western countries, and not just for the elderly. In Germany and Belgium and most other European countries, education is free -- all the way through college.

There is no record of the survival of a society that operated on the principle of something for nothing.

Nor of one that launched a military venture halfway around the world and then went about, hat in hand, asking somebody else to pay for it.

Maybe it's time for Jeremiah to drop around again and remind us that free lunches are available only Up There, not Down Here.

J. Herbert Altschull is a historian and journalist who teaches in B the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.


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