Taxes Are What We Pay for Civilized Society

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.? Vermont Legislature? Albert Bushnell Hart? IRS Building? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: It is tax time in the U.S., and I have a question about the inscription engraved on the exterior of the IRS Building in Washington D.C.:

Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society

The IRS website credited the remark to the Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. But my searches have not yet uncovered a solid attribution. Can you tell me where he wrote this or when he said it? I also found some other phrases attributed to Holmes expressing the same idea:

Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.
Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.
I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.

Quote Investigator: In 1927 in the court case of Compañía General de Tabacos de Filipinas v. Collector of Internal Revenue a dissenting opinion was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. that included the following phrase. Note that the text differed slightly from the inscription. The word “a” was omitted:

Taxes are what we pay for civilized society …

Here is a longer excerpt from the opinion by Holmes [OHCG]:

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.

There is intriguing evidence supporting another of the quotations above in an anecdote recounted by a friend of Holmes named Felix Frankfurter who joined the Supreme Court in 1939 four years after Holmes died. In 1938 Frankfurter published the book “Mr. Justice Holmes and the Supreme Court”, and he also wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly magazine. Both publications included this story about Holmes [ATFF] [LPFF]:

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.’

Interestingly, this basic sentiment was expressed multiple times over a period of decades before Holmes wrote it. Although the wording used was variable. For example, in 1852 a committee appointed by the governor of Vermont wrote a report for the legislature which included the following:

Taxation is the price which we pay for civilization, for our social, civil and political institutions, for the security of life and property, and without which, we must resort to the law of force.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1848 a committee report to the State Senate of Ohio emphasized that taxation paid for “social order” [JSOH]:

Rightful taxation is the price of social order. In other words, it is that portion of the citizen’s property which he yields up to the government in order to provide for the protection of all the rest. It is not to be wantonly levied on the citizen, nor levied at all except in return for benefits conferred.

In 1852, as noted above, a legislative committee in Vermont published a report. The phrase about taxation can be truncated in the same way that the words of Holmes were abbreviated to yield a pithy expression:

Taxation is the price which we pay for civilization …

In 1863 a committee report to the New York legislature spoke of the “requirements of civilization” [JSNY]:

If we are correct in the position that taxation is the price or penalty exacted by the requirements of civilization and the necessity of regulated liberty of thought, action and property, we cannot but conclude that such price or penalty should be as light as possible compatible with the ends in view; …

In 1866 a book titled “Christian Ethics or The Science of Duty” suggested that taxes are used to assure “life and property” [CEJA]:

A man’s taxes are what he pays for the protection of his life and property, and for the conditions of public prosperity in which he shares. He ought to pay his just portion of the expense of government.

In 1884 a collection of quotations called “Day’s Collacon” offered “glory” as a rationale for taxation [DCCH]:

Taxes are what a nation pays for glory. Chatfield.

In 1903 taxes were connected to the goal of “remaining civilized” by Albert Bushnell Hart [AGAH]:

Taxation is the price which civilized communities pay for the opportunity of remaining civilized.

In 1916 the State School Supervisor of Georgia argued for the use of taxes to support schools. He invoked a concise version of the quotation under investigation [CDFL]:

Taxation for schools is American and democratic. “Taxation is the price of civilization.” “Only the savage pays no taxes.”

In 1918 an article in the periodical Forum by Perley Morse said this [FRPM]:

Taxes are the price of development and civilization, and it is worth it.

In 1927 Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.  wrote about taxes in a court opinion as noted near the beginning of this post [OHCG]:

Taxes are what we pay for civilized society, including the chance to insure.

On October 21, 1936 President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a speech in Worcester, Massachusetts and multiple newspapers reported excerpts the next day. Roosevelt credited Oliver Wendell Holmes with a version of the saying that differed slightly from the phrase used in 1927 [FROH]:

Mr. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: ‘Taxes are the price we pay for civilized society.’

On June 1, 1937 Roosevelt gave a speech on the topic of tax evasion, and again he invoked a version of the saying. This time the words matched the 1927 quote [FDRO]

Mr. Justice Holmes said “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” Too many individuals, however, want the civilization at a discount.

In 1938 Felix Frankfurter presented an anecdote about Holmes as mentioned earlier. Holmes reportedly said the following [ATFF]:

I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.

In conclusion, in 1927 Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. did employ a version of the quotation. But the basic saying has a long history and the sentiment was not unique to Holmes. Franklin D. Roosevelt helped to popularize the saying and the attribution to Holmes.

QI has examined other quotations about taxation including statements attributed to Albert Einstein. Here is a link to entries with the keyword: taxation.

(Many thanks to Phil Spiro whose inquiry on this topic inspired the construction of this question and the initiation of this exploration.)

[OHCG] 1927, [FindLaw database], U.S. Supreme Court Case, Compania General de Tabacos de Filipinas v. Collector of Internal, 275 U.S. 87, Argued and Submitted Oct. 18, 1927; Decided Nov. 21, 1927, [Dissenting opinion by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.]  (Accessed at on April 12, 2012) link

[ATFF] 1938 October, The Atlantic Monthly, Justice Holmes Defines the Constitution by Felix Frankfurter, Start Page 484, Quote Page 495, Column 1, Atlantic Monthly, Co., Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)

[LPFF] 1939, “Law and Politics: Occasional Papers of Felix Frankfurter, 1913-1938”, Editors: Archibald MacLeish and E. F. Prichard Jr., Authors: Felix Frankfurter and Archibald MacLeish, Page 78, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Questia)

[HRVT] 1852, Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Vermont, October Session, 1851, Appendix: Report of the Committee Appointed by the Governor to Take into Consideration the Financial Affairs of the State, Start Page 368, Quote Page 369, Printed by Chauncey Goodrich, Burlington, Vermont. (Google Books full view) link

[JSOH] 1848, Journal of the Senate of the State of Ohio: Being the First Session of the Forty-Sixth General Assembly, Volume XLVI, Appendix to Senate Journal, Report of the Minority of the Judiciary Committee, Relative to House Bill No. 18, In Senate – January 21, 1848, Start Page 74, Quote Page 75, Chas. Scott’s Steam Press, Columbus, Ohio. (Google Books full view) link

[JSNY] 1863, State of New York, Report on the Assessment Laws by the Joint Select Committee Appointed by the Legislature of 1862, Transmitted Feb, 2, 1863, [No. 30, In Senate], Page 6, Weed, Parsons and Company, Albany, New York. (Google Books full view) link

[CEJA] 1866, Christian Ethics or The Science Of Duty by Joseph Alden, Page 139, Ivison, Phinney, Blakeman & Co., Chicago. (Google Books full view) link

[DCCH] 1884, Day’s Collacon: An Encyclopaedia of Prose Quotations, Compiled and Arranged by Edward Parsons Day, Section: Taxation, Page 927, Column 1, International Printing and Publishing Office, New York. (Google Books full view) link

[AGAH] 1903, Actual Government As Applied Under American Conditions by Albert Bushnell Hart, American Citizen Series, Page 406, Longmans, Green, and Co., New York. (Google Books full view) link

[CDFL] 1916 August 4, Columbus Enquirer-Sun [Columbus Daily Enquirer], Supervisor of Schools Closes Campaign Here: F. E. Land Addressed Large Audience at Mount Vernon, Page 1, Column 5, Columbus, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)

[FRPM] 1918 November, Forum, What Taxes Should I Pay by Perley Morse, Page 543, Forum Pub. Co., New York. (ProQuest American Periodicals)

[FROH] 1936 October 22, Chicago Tribune, Roosevelt Bids for Aid in New England Areas by William Fulton, Page 1, [Continuation of article on Page 6], Article subsection: Discusses Taxation, Page 6, Column 2, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)

[FDRO] 1938, The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt: In Multiple Volumes, Volume Title: The Constitution Prevails, Volume Year: 1937, Speech Date: June 1, 1937, Speech Title: The President Urges Legislation to Prevent Tax Evasion, Page 238, Random House, New York. (Unz)