THE BLOG

It's Not Too Late for a War Tax

03/19/2013 04:39 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2013

In case you needed another reason to support a special war tax, try this on for size: The United States is still paying veterans' benefits to the children of Civil War soldiers. According to the Associated Press, two survivors are each receiving $876 dollars a year.

Meanwhile, 10 children are still drawing benefits for their fathers' service in the Spanish-American War, at an annual cost of $50,000. Benefits tied to World War I? $20 million a year. World War II? $5 billion. Korea? $2.8 billion. The costs for Vietnam are even higher (and still rising).

The take home is simple: Wars are expensive -- in any number of ways, and for a very long time. And veterans' benefits are only a small part of the total.

Today's lawmakers seem oblivious to this cost. For 10 years, the United States has been fighting very real and very expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But we have never levied a dime in special taxes to pay for either of these conflicts, let alone the also-expensive war at home (in the form of homeland security).

Past wars, by contrast, have always brought new taxes to pay for them. As I argue in my 2008 book, War and Taxes (coauthored with Steven Bank and Kirk Stark, both of UCLA Law School), the United States has a long history of wartime fiscal sacrifice.

It's important not to oversimplify this history. Past wars were paid for (at least partly) with new taxes, but it's not like there wasn't some foot-dragging along the way. Most people don't like to pay taxes, even for a noble cause.

But they still paid. Whether they liked it or not, past generations recognized that war taxes were an economic and moral necessity. Politicians were a lot more afraid of borrowing than they are today. And a lot more worried about the fairness of saddling future generations with the cost of fighting current wars. (Although this issue cuts both ways: If one generation does the actual fighting, is it crazy to ask the next generation to at least help pay for it?)

But most important, past politicians understood a simple fact: If a war is worth fighting, then it's worth paying for. And if it's not worth paying for, then how can we justify its terrible human cost?

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be winding down. But that doesn't mean we should forget about war taxes. Better late than never. Especially since we'll be paying the tab for decades (or centuries) to come.

Thorndike is director of the Tax History Project at Tax Analysts and a visiting scholar in history at UVA.