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Why Americans hate paying taxes

By Jonathan Mann
  • American culture seems to increasingly treat taxation as a something close to a crime
  • This week lawmakers voted on whether to extend sweeping tax cuts
  • Boston Tea Party was one of the seminal events leading up to the American Revolution
  • The tough decisions about how Washington will trim its budget are still ahead

"Our Mann in America" is a weekly column discussing the big talking points in the U.S. for an international audience. Jonathan Mann is an anchor for CNN International and the host of Political Mann.

(CNN) -- Nobody likes paying taxes, but American culture seems to increasingly treat taxation as a something close to a crime committed by the ruling class.

"Americans hate everything about taxation with a passion," writes historian Robin Einhorn. "No campaign promise works better than the promise to cut taxes."

This week, American lawmakers grappled with that as they voted on whether to extend sweeping tax cuts first enacted under president George W. Bush.

The country's airwaves and editorial pages have been filled with arguments for and against. The U.S. government is heavily indebted and could certainly use hundreds of billions of dollars in extra revenue. Right now, though, with the country slow to emerge from recession, letting taxpayers' spend that money themselves may be the best way to stimulate growth.

Many members of President Barack Obama's Democratic Party wanted a compromise -- keeping the tax cuts for most Americans and while re-imposing higher rates for the rich.

The politics of it touch on something primal because when America talks taxes, economics are hardly the only issue. The instinct against giving the government money is older than the country itself and has never gone away.

This week in 1773, British colonists dumped a shipload of tea into Boston Harbor to protest against tea taxes. The Boston Tea Party is remembered as one of the seminal events leading up to the American Revolution.

Today a new movement that calls itself the Tea Party is sweeping the country and threatening to take control of the Republican Party. The name evokes both the 18th century uprising and, conveniently, the acronym T.E.A. -- Taxed Enough Already.

As it so happens, U.S. taxes are light by international standards, roughly tied with Japan as the lowest among G-7 nations. A grateful citizen or observant visitor might even regard them as money well spent; Americans have excellent roads, dependable public services and most of the basic benefits of good government.

"Taxes, after all," said late president Franklin Roosevelt "are dues that we pay for the privileges of membership in an organized society."

So where does the antipathy spring from?

"Most Americans would probably agree that our hatred for taxes has something to do with a more profound aversion to government in general-an aversion with deep roots in our history," writes Einhorn, a historian at the University of California.

It's easy to see those roots in the American Revolution and the young nation's veneration of individual effort and free enterprise.

Einhorn suggests that slave-owners were particularly opposed to any government measures affecting private property. But 18th century American philosopher Henry David Thoreau is probably best remembered for refusing to pay his taxes as a form of civil disobedience against slavery. Taxes have proven to be a convenient target for just about anyone.

Even today. American authorities are still fighting a small but determined movement that argues that income taxes are illegal under the U.S. constitution. Some of its most militant members have tried low-level terrorism. Some simply end up behind bars.

Hollywood tough-guy Wesley Snipes, who starred most recently as a vampire hunter in the "Blade" film trilogy, began serving a three-year sentence this month for failing to pay $17 million in back taxes under the guidance, he said, of the tax-resistance movement.

Of course, many conservative economists and Republican leaders would say that low taxes are simply good policy and lower taxes are even better policy.

They take their cue from the late Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman who argued for "cutting taxes under any circumstances and for any excuse, for any reason, whenever it's possible."

Making it possible is the tough part. Conservatives are caught between their hatred of taxes and their fear of government deficits. They argue that in the U.S., both are much too high.

The only alternative would be the one that European governments are already adopting: Dramatic spending cuts. But voters don't resign themselves easily to reduced government services; civil servants don't often volunteer for pay cuts.

The tough decisions about how Washington will trim its budget are still ahead. For now, the attention has been on taxes.

Read Jonathan's last column