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.