THE message was loud and clear. My former tax student at the Ateneo Law School and now the current Commissioner of the Bureau of Internal Revenue said: “We find it to be not just criminal but perhaps immoral for a person that (who) earns profits out of people in need of financial assistance, yet fails to do his one duty to the country and pay proper taxes.”

Articulating the broader significance of the event, her immediate boss, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, declared, “We would like to inform the paying public that it’s no longer business as usual and the chances of being caught is (are) higher.”

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Focusing on the return of the R.A.T.E. (Run After Tax Evaders) program, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima announced, “There will be no compromise under this program.

Three acknowledged tough gun-slingers are now in town; a scene straight of the Gunfight at O.K. Corral. At last, tax compliance will reign in this town. And I am not complaining.

As early as 1988, the Supreme Court, without exposing itself to the danger of being accused of plagiarizing Oliver Wendell Holmes, ruled “It is said that taxes are what we pay for civilized society. Without taxes, the government would be paralyzed for lack of the motive power to activate and operate it. Hence, despite the natural reluctance to surrender part of one’s hard-earned income to the taxing authorities, every person who is able must contribute his share in the running of the government…”

Payment of the correct taxes is admittedly a must. And all my good wishes go with the revenue collection authorities. But just as important as collecting revenues is insuring that what is collected is used for the legitimate purposes of the collection.

Thus, in the same decision, the Supreme Court continued, “…for its part [the government] is expected to respond in the form of tangible and intangible benefits intended to improve the lives of the people and enhance their moral and material values. This symbiotic relationship is the rationale of taxation and should dispel the erroneous notion that it is an arbitrary method of exaction by those in the seat of power.”

It had always believed that that “erroneous notion” was the unfortunate fruit of our history. During the Spanish era, collecting taxes was in the hands of the petty governor. “All taxes”, a historical text reports, “are collected under the direction and supervision of the gobernadorcillo, who is compelled by the threat of fines to attend to this duty, and is held responsible if he does not deliver the total amount he is supposed to collect fully and promptly on the date specified by the regulations.” The system of “quotas” given to the Revenue District Offices by the Head Office indeed goes a long way back into history.

But even as early as then, the idea that the government had a reciprocal obligation was prevalent. Sanciano y Goson, a Filipino lawyer in Madrid, is said to have pointed out that “The citizen is obliged to contribute what he can towards expenses of government in return for services which government provides.” He proceeds to argue that what Spain could demand was not tribute but instead “a tax proportionate to their property, which may be greater or less according as the services provided by the state for the security of their persons and property are greater or less.” On this justification for taxation, Goson launched his attack on the discriminatory exemptions of the propertied who were descendants in the paternal line from the peninsular Spaniard or the European. He argued, “Is it perchance only the so-called natives and mestizos receive the protection of the state? Does not this protection extend also to those descended from Peninsulars and Europeans in the paternal line? Are only the sons of Peninsulars and Europeans to have rights and are duties to be reserved to all the rest born in the Philippines?”

The thinking on what determined the obligation to pay has since moved on from, as above articulated, recompense for governmental services rendered, to the taxpayer’s ability to pay. Nationalists recoiled at the thought of those who had less in life and thus unable to pay nevertheless being forced to do so.

After enumerating a litany of taxes, starting from the hated cedula, to the annual tax of five cents on each coconut tree in a grove, to the license fee to sun an oil press, to privilege tax on selling one’s bananas at his shop on the ground floor of his residence, down to the documentary taxes on all types of legal business transactions, a protester took up the cudgels for the poor who constitute most of the population.

“Should the sums mentioned seem insignificant,” nationalists argued, “it must be remembered that a man’s wages are frequently not more than five or ten cents per day; that a large majority of the people cannot get work at any price…”

It is the need to collect taxes from those able to pay that provides the moral steam and motive power to present day revenue collection drives.

And the fact that Commissioner Henares, from the universe of those able to pay, targeted a taxpayer whose ability to pay derived from a business that profited from those in financial need, is a good sign. From where I sit, it is precisely these people who are in need of taxes to lift them up from their low economic strata. It is but meet and just that those whose businesses thrive on their need be made to share the burden of taxation.

And if they don’t so share, then the Government has both all the moral and legal right to throw the book at them and make them answer in court of law what is in fact a crime against the poor.

And, somehow, all those nights spent teaching tax to half-awake students, those hours spent in correcting examination papers to test whether the thoughts in my skull to some extent, by some form of educational osmosis, got into the minds of my pupils, seem to be well on their way to be worth it.

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