The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Brief Notes on Jeffersonian Topics

Using Taxes to Promote Disagreeable Ideas

There is a quotation from Jefferson's writings that is used by some to suggest that it is wrong to take an individual's taxes and use them to promote ideas with which he does not agree. This passage is quoted by some Creationists who oppose the teaching of evolution, and by some libertarians who oppose public education altogether. The suggestion is that it is wrong to use taxes for any purpose not agreeable to the taxpayer. The quotation cited is the following:

It is important to note (1) that this statement is made concerning the promotion of opinions, not information and ideas, and (2) that this is in the context of religious teachings. If this principle were applied to ANY kind of ideas, it would preclude all instruction in public schools and all information provided by government, since it will never be possible to teach or distribute any kind of information to which someone somewhere did not object. It is also important to note the difference between opinions and ideas. Opinions, especially in this context, imply matters of belief that are inculcated in the listener, which is the usual practice in religious institutions. This is almost always information that is presented for acceptance on faith, not for critical analysis. But the dissemination of ideas is a much broader concept, and includes facts, analysis, results of investigations, rational arguments in opposition, etc., all of which are presented not for acceptance based on religious authority, but as matter for rational consideration and evaluation -- mental processes which are rarely, if ever, encouraged in a religious setting and with respect to religious dogma and teaching.

Although this quote is often used by creationists in order to oppose the teaching of evolution, such a use is just the reverse of what Jefferson intended. Evolution is a rational, but debatable, theory, whereas Creationism is a matter, essentially, of religious belief followed by subsequent rationalization. Those using this quote in that argument are doing just what Jefferson opposed: trying to force religious teaching into the area of material origins and to compel publicly supported educational institutions to make instructional decisions based on religious dogma, thus allowing religious opinion to control the content of public instruction, rather than having it controlled by rational ideas, analysis and investigations. This, then, would compel those who do not accept the religious teaching of Creation to pay their taxes to support public institutions whose instructional programs are controlled by religious opinions which these taxpayers abhor!

Libertarians refer to this quote in their opposition to government sponsored educational institutions, saying that individual taxpayers should be free to support those institutions with which they agree, and not compelled to pay taxes to those that teach things with which they disagree, no matter what the subject matter. Certainly, Jefferson himself never intended such an interpretation, since he was a staunch supporter of public education. Applying the quote in this sense is using it to undermine national unity and reducing individuals to isolated units rather than a nation of people directed by general consensus. Moreover, it puts forth a vacuous objection, since no parent attempts to dictate to even a private school what facts and ideas it should teach, nor do they select a private school on such a basis except if the school chosen teaches religious opinions which they desire their child to receive. If that is their choice, then they are certainly free to make that choice; but they should not have that choice supported by public tax monies.

For these reasons, I think it is a mistake to use this statement of Jefferson in opposition to the teaching of ideas in public schools with taxpayer money. The above quote is included on the Jefferson quotes site, but it is located in the section on Freedom of Religion, which is the context in which Jefferson originally placed it.


The Jeffersonian Perspective: Table of Contents | Front Page
Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Front Page | Table of Contents

© 1999 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.