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.

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Taxes: This is a Question Too Difficult for a Mathematician

Albert Einstein? Associated Press? Time magazine? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: You recently discussed one quotation by Albert Einstein about taxes, but my question is about another remark attributed to the genius. The Canadian newspaper “Globe and Mail” published the following earlier this year [GME]:

Albert Einstein said of his tax return, “This is too difficult for a mathematician. It takes a philosopher.”

Is this information accurate?

Quote Investigator: There is evidence that Einstein spoke this; however, the precise wording in the original differs. The following text appeared in an Associated Press article in the New York Times titled “Tax Form Baffles Even Prof. Einstein” dated March 11, 1944 [NTE]:

Asked what his reaction was to the maze of income tax questions, Professor Einstein, whose theory of relativity is supposedly understood by only seven persons in the world, replied:

“This is a question too difficult for a mathematician. It should be asked of a philosopher.”

The byline stated the location was Princeton, New Jersey, and Einstein did work at the Institute for Advanced Study of Princeton University in 1944. The AP wire story was widely distributed; for example, on the same day the quotation was printed in the Los Angeles Times [LAE] and the Christian Science Monitor [CME].

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The Hardest Thing in the World to Understand is Income Taxes

Albert Einstein? Leo Mattersdorf? Fictional?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been struggling trying to figure out how much I owe to the Internal Revenue Service this year. The quote I would like you to explore does not sound very extraordinary. What makes it funny and outrageous is the identity of the person who supposedly said it:

The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.

Did Albert Einstein really say this? I have seen this statement in many places, and the quote is even listed on the official IRS.gov website with an attribution to Einstein [EIS]. However, I am skeptical because no one seems to have a good reference, and the humor is too perfect.

Quote Investigator: This is a timely and entertaining query, and QI may have found the origin of this quotation. In 1963 a letter written by Leo Mattersdorf appeared in Time magazine with the following assertion: “From the time Professor Einstein came to this country until his death, I prepared his income tax returns and advised him on his tax problems.” Mattersdorf told the following anecdote about Einstein [TLM]:

One year while I was at his Princeton home preparing his return, Mrs. Einstein, who was then still living, asked me to stay for lunch. During the course of the meal, the professor turned to me and with his inimitable chuckle said: “The hardest thing in the world to understand is income taxes.” I replied: “There is one thing more difficult, and that is your theory of relativity.” “Oh, no,” he replied, ”that is easy.” To which Mrs. Einstein commented, “Yes, for you.”

LEO MATTERSDORF New York City

Einstein died in 1955, so this story appeared after his death. Nevertheless, there is solid evidence that Mattersdorf was a friend of Einstein’s, and he performed tax accounting work for him. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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