I heard this speech on Thom Hartmann's radio program, and had to pass some of it along. Franklin D. Roosevelt: Address at Worcester, Mass. 1936:
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.
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. The actors are the same. But the act is different. Today their role calls for stage tears about the next generation. But in the days after the World War they played a different part.
A balanced budget is on the way. Does that sound like bankruptcy to you? Why this increase in Government revenues? Because the taxpayer earns more money and spends more money. Though he pays more money in taxes, he has more money left for himself and for his family.
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. 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.
I want to say a word also to the wage earners who are finding propaganda about the security tax in their pay envelopes. I want to remind them that the new social security law was designed for them, for the greater safety of their homes and their families. The fund necessary to provide that security is not collected solely from workers. The employer, too, pays an equal share. And both shares—yours and the employer's—are being held for the sole benefit of the worker himself.
Once more this year we must choose between democracy in taxation and special privilege in taxation. Are you willing to turn the control of the Nation's taxes back to special privilege? I know the American answer to that question. Your pay envelope may be loaded with suggestions of fear, and your dividend letter may be filled with propaganda. But the American people will be neither bluffed nor bludgeoned.
The seeds of fear cannot bear fruit in the polling booth. Inside the polling booth every American man and woman stands as the equal of every other American man and woman. There they have no superiors. There they have no masters save their own minds and consciences. There they are sovereign American citizens. There on November 3d they will not fear to exercise that sovereignty.