Quote of the moment: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., on taxes


The frequently quotable Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., circa 1930. Edited photograph from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Original photo by Harris & Ewing. LC-USZ62-47817.  Copyright expired.

The frequently quotable Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., circa 1930. Edited photograph from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Original photo by Harris & Ewing. LC-USZ62-47817. Copyright expired.

I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., attributed.  (see Felix Frankfurter, Mr. Justice Holmes and the Supreme Court, Harvard University Press, 1961, page 71.)

Did Holmes say that?

The quote is all over the internet Wednesday, after New York Times op-ed writer Tom Friedman noted it in his column criticizing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for her assertion that paying taxes is not patriotic.

I found reference to the quote in a book about eminent economists, through Google Scholar:

Eminent Economists: Their Life Philosophies
By Michael Szenberg
Published by Cambridge University Press, 1993
320 pages

On page 201, Szenberg refers Holmes’s view of “taxation as the price of liberty.”  In a footnote, he points to Justice Frankfurter’s book.  The quote is dolled up a little.  According to Szenberg’s footnote:

More precisely, he rebuked a secretary’s query of “Don’t you hate to pay taxes?” with “No, young fellow, I like paying taxes, with them I buy civilization.”

Frankfurter is a reliable source.  It’s likely Holmes said something very close to the words Friedman used.

Urge others to buy a chunk of civilization:

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17 Responses to Quote of the moment: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., on taxes

  1. [...] You know who likes paying taxes? Take it away, former mayor Mel Lastman. N-o-o-o-o-body! Except maybe Jesus who bade us to render onto Caesar what was Caesar’s and Oliver Wendell Holmes with his belief that taxes made for civilization. [...]

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  2. [...] me admit upfront that I agree wholeheartedly with the great Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: “I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization.” About taxes, I am probably the [...]

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  3. Ed Darrell says:

    Thank you, Mr. Morris!

    Here’s the full quote — just a bit different from what we have above (emphasis added), emphasizing the difference between taxes and penalties:

    The plaintiff’s reliance is upon Allgeyer v. Louisiana, 165 U.S. 578 , 17 S. Ct. 427, in which it was held that a fine could not be imposed by the State for sending a notice similar to the present to an insurance company out of the State. But it seems to me that the tax was justified and that this case is distinguished from that of Allgeyer and from St. Louis Cotton Compress Co. v. Arkansas, 260 U.S. 346 , 43 S. Ct. 125, by the difference between a penalty and a tax. It is true, as indicated in the last cited case, that every exaction of money for an act is a discouragement to the extent of the payment required, but that which in its immediacy is a discouragement may be part of an encouragement when seen in its organic connection with the whole. Taxes are what we pay for civilized society, including the chance to insure. A penalty on the other hand is intended altogether to prevent the thing punished. It readily may be seen that a State may tax things that under the Constitution as interpreted it can not prevent. The constitutional right asserted in Allgeyer v. Louisiana to earn one’s livelihood by any lawful calling certainly is consistent, as we all know, with the calling being taxed.

    Compania General de Tabacos de Filipinas v. Collector of Internal Revenue, 275 U.S. 87 (1927) (here from FindLaw)

    See also the website with photos from the late Lachlan Cranswick.

    It makes you wonder, though: Did Holmes later add that part about “I like to pay taxes?”

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  4. The quote attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society” and originally phrased as “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society,” in his dissenting opinion in Compania General De Tabacos De Filipinas v. Collector of Internal Revenue, 275 U.S. 87, 100, (1927), appears above the entrance to the Internal Revenue Service headquarters at 1111 Constitution Avenue, Washington, D.C..

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  5. [...] And according to Ed Darrell, he probably did say something like [...]

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  6. [...] And according to Ed Darrell, he probably did say something like [...]

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  7. [...] the U.S. Supreme Court by Progressive Republican President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902. Holmes also said, “I like taxes. With them I buy civilization.” Up ’til now, I had failed to come [...]

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  8. [...] the U.S. Supreme Court by Progressive Republican President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902. Holmes also said, “I like taxes. With them I buy [...]

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  9. [...] Sargent was a little less subtle, in the Austin American-Statesman, using that Oliver Wendell Holmes quote we looked at some time ago. Ben Sargent, Austin American-Statesman, copyright [...]

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  10. Jello says:

    Russ: The quote is from the early 1930s … ya know, the dirty 30s. Taxes were around 63%, compared to the ~30% now.

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  11. Ed Darrell says:

    Russ, the highest tax rate now is just over 30%. 67%? I think you’re confusing the U.S. with someone else.

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  12. Ed Darrell says:

    Which IRS building? Which door? I’d love to confirm that, but have been unable to find an image or source that confirms. Can you help, Michael?

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  13. MICHAEL says:

    On the Internal Revenue Service Building in Washington, D.C. the Holmes quote is carved into the limestone facade. I believe that as rendered there it reads: “Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.” It is attributed to Holmes there.

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  14. Russ says:

    My question is this: In what year did he say it? When income taxes were 1% or 2% or when they were 67%?

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  15. Ginger says:

    Thanks for this! I was looking all over to see if the quote was true…

    Like

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