You can be a taxpayer or you can be a citizen. If you’re a taxpayer your role in the country is defined by your economic and legal status. Your primary identity is individual. You’re perfectly within your rights to do everything you legally can to look after your self-interest.
Within this logic, it’s perfectly fine for Donald Trump to have potentially paid no income taxes, even over a long period of time. As Trump and his allies have said, he would have broken no law. He would have taken advantage of the deductions just the way the rest of us take advantage of the mortgage deduction or any other; it’s just that he had more deductions to draw upon.
As Trump and his advisers have argued, it is normal practice in our society to pay as little in taxes as possible. There are vast industries to help people do this. There is no wrong here.
The problem with the taxpayer mentality is that you end up serving your individual interest short term but soiling the nest you need to be happy in over the long term.
A healthy nation isn’t just an atomized mass of individual economic and legal units. A nation is a web of giving and getting. You give to your job, and your employer gives to you. You give to your neighborhood, and your neighborhood gives to you. You give to your government, and your government gives to you.
If you orient everything around individual self-interest, you end up ripping the web of giving and receiving. Neighbors can’t trust neighbors. Individuals can’t trust their institutions, and they certainly can’t trust their government. Everything that is not explicitly prohibited is permissible. Everybody winds up suspicious and defensive and competitive. You wind up alone at 3 a.m. miserably tweeting out at your enemies.
And this is exactly the atomized mentality that is corroding America. Years ago, David Foster Wallace put it gently: “It may sound reactionary, I know. But we can all feel it. We’ve changed the way we think of ourselves as citizens. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens in the old sense of being small parts of something larger and infinitely more important to which we have serious responsibilities. We do still think of ourselves as citizens in the sense of being beneficiaries – we’re actually conscious of our rights as American citizens and the nation’s responsibilities to us and ensuring we get our share of the American pie.”
The older citizenship mentality is a different mentality. It starts with the warm glow of love of country. It continues with a sense of sweet gratitude that the founders of the country, for all their flaws, were able to craft a structure of government that is suppler and more lasting than anything we seem to be able to craft today.
The citizen enjoys a sweet reverence for all the gifts that have been handed down over time, and a generous piety about country that is the opposite of arrogance.
Out of this sweet parfait of emotions comes a sense of a common beauty that transcends individual beauty. There’s a sense of how a lovely society is supposed to be. This means that the economic desire to save money on taxes competes with a larger desire to be part of a lovely world.
In a lovely society we all pull our fair share. Some things the government does are uncontroversial goods: protecting us from enemies, preserving the health and dignity of the old and infirm. These things have to be paid for, and in the societies we admire, everybody helps.
In a lovely society everybody practices a kind of social hygiene. There are some things that are legal but distasteful and corrupt. In a lovely society people shun these corrupt and corrupting things. The tax code is a breeding ground for corruption, so they don’t take advantage. The lottery system immiserates the poor so they don’t contribute to its acceptability by playing.
In a lovely society everyone feels privilege, but the rich feel a special privilege. They know they have been given more than they deserve, and that it is actually not going to hurt all that much to try to be worthy of what they’ve received.
Citizens aren’t just sacrificing out of the nobility of their heart. They serve the common good for their own enrichment, too. If they practice politics they can learn prudence; if they serve in the military they can learn courage. Public citizenship is the path to personal growth.
You can say that a billionaire paying no taxes is fine and legal. But you have to adopt an overall mentality that shuts down a piece of your heart, and most of your moral sentiments.
That mentality is entirely divorced from the mentality of commonality and citizenship. That mentality has side effects. They may lead toward riches, but they lead away from happiness.
The writer is a columnist for The New York Times.