Quote of the moment, still: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., on taxes as the price for civilization

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 was all over the internet in early October 2008 (and later), 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.

This is mostly an encore post.

Urge others to give a dime and give a damn for civilization:

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8 Responses to Quote of the moment, still: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., on taxes as the price for civilization

  1. Hey may I quote some of the material found in this blog if I reference you with a link back to your site?


  2. […] Quote of the moment, still: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., on taxes … […]


  3. *** Dave says:

    Interestingly, my Bartlett’s (hardcopy, 1980) gets it wrong — it cites the case, but dates it at 1904 (as do a variety of other online sources). However, the case is very definitely from 1927. I’ve found some references to a variation of the quote by him dating to 1904, without any better citation, and that may be where some of the confusion comes. Looking up SCOTUS rulings online, among other things, is a tremendous boon to the quotation wonk.


  4. Ed Darrell says:

    So, if you all can track this stuff down, Bartlett’s better get it right.



  5. ***Dave says:

    The Frankfurter book was originally written in 1938, and the quote is slightly different than the (second edition) Szenburg gives. ‘… rebuked with the hot response, “No, young feller. I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.”‘

    (Thank you, Google Books.)


  6. ***Dave says:

    He actually uses the phrase (as well?) in one of his decisions. General De Tabacos De Filipinas v. Collector of Internal Revenue, 275 U.S. 87, 100 (1927), dissenting (quoted at excessive length for context):

    “The plaintiff’s reliance is upon Allgeyer v. Louisiana, 165 U. S. 578, 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, 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 cannot 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.

    “Sometimes there may be a difficulty in deciding whether an imposition is a tax or a penalty, but generally the intent to prohibit, when it exists, is plainly expressed. Sometimes, even when it is called a tax, the requirement is shown to be a penalty by its excess in amount over the tax in similar cases, as in St. Louis Cotton Compress Co. v. Arkansas. But, in the present instance, there is no room for doubt. The charge not only is called a tax, but is the same in amount as that imposed where the right to impose it is not denied.

    “The government has the insured within its jurisdiction. I can see no ground for denying its right to use its power to tax unless it can be shown that it has conferred no benefit of a kind that would justify the tax, as is held with regard to property outside of a state belonging to one within it.”


    This may be a repeat — other citations I have refer to a speech in 1904. But he at least used a close variation of the phrase in an actual SCOTUS decision.


  7. Ed Darrell says:

    You mean Frankfurter thought taxation better than regulations.

    Better, or just more effective in curbing behaviors?

    Cap and trade provides a lot of negotiating room that a tax cannot, however. This was a real hot issue in the 1970s and 1980s, when it became clear that some kinds of coal had a lot less sulfur in them. We could achieve clean air by allowing cheap coal to be used, producing sulfur oxides, and then using other, low-sulfur coal in other areas, or we could shut down the high-sulfur coal plants and pay through the nose for slightly-lower-sulfur oil from Arabia that would pollute marginally less, but not enough less to significantly reduce pollution.

    In that case, the idea of letting the high-sulfur coal burners pay the low-sulfur guys made the low-sulfur power plants much more economical, encouraging their construction.

    How would you devise a tax to allow such a shift between private producers, if you had to have the government in the middle? How could it possibly operate as fast, to keep up with markets?


  8. Hank Roberts says:

    And he pointed out that taxation is far more effective than regulation, as the bankers and lawyers will be glad to help write the regulations. I posted that quote here:



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