The Care and Feeding of Tax Collectors

Lawyers may not be the most hated profession, even though entire books of lawyer jokes exist. Every non-lawyer has a war story about a run-in with a lawyer, whether here or in the old country.

But if non-lawyers disdain lawyers, whom do lawyers pick on? Tax collectors, perhaps. Maybe I will write a book of tax-collector jokes for the lawyer market. Then again, no.

There is historic support for the contempt of lawyers for tax collectors. The New Testament, for instance, records multiple instances of lawyers dissing tax collectors. In that day, the line may have been, “I may be a scumbag lawyer, but I’m no tax collector, thank God.” In fact, there is a parable to this effect.

Levi, the apostle who recorded that parable, was himself said to be a tax collector. His plight is explainable by the ancient practice of tax farming, which in some parts of the world endured as an official institution even into the 20th century. The short definition of this is that a ruler or governor would grant a franchise to a taxation agent, or “farmer,” whose job was to collect whatever was assessed against a town, city or province. Anything above this, he could keep.

The tax farmer collected his quota however he liked, justly or unjustly, so woe to you if you crossed him. Given this circumstance, even honest tax collectors fell under suspicion and contempt. And if the town, city or province you lived in was a conquered entity, then it was all the worse. So it was that Judean tax collectors, employed by Imperial Rome, were reckoned lower than the scum at the bottom of the septic pool.

Even today, this perception takes a toll, on both despiser and despised. I recall a visit I made 25 years ago to a Nevadan IRS office (the IRS, for my non-paisanos, is the tax collection apparatus of the United States). I had some questions, but the people inside were too hardboiled to address them. They had chafed, I concluded, under a modern version of the daily opprobrium suffered by their first-century counterparts. The waiting room was in fact full of people cocked with head-exploding anger. Someone later told me that, since I saw no outbursts, I had gone on a good day. Even so, I never got to talk to a live IRS employee.

I casually befriended a vacationing IRS employee I met one day, circa 2000, in La Antigua. He was looking for a marzipan store, and since I do not know the street names in that town, I had to actually lead him to the place. En route, I discovered his line of work, and found that he was willing to be candid about it.

Now, as historically, tax collectors have relatively few friends, and some have none at all—aside from other tax collectors. Paul of Tarsus instructed his co-religionist to treat your offender or enemy like you would a tax collector if he failed to respond to a prescribed series of rebukes for wronging you. But this same teacher was himself under the imperative to love one’s enemies, including, presumably, those as bad as the tax collectors. How do these two commands square with each other?

Perhaps in the following way. Tax collectors may be someone on a wicked trajectory through life; but even if they are, they retain their human identity, they have needs, and they can be reconstructed, and they might even have integrity to begin with. Paul may have personally known a tax collector, one Zaccheus, who did turn over the leaf.

In my 21 years in Central America—mostly in Guatemala—I have had many dealings with tax officials. Sometimes, I see them on my own matters. At other times, I am accompanying (as a consular volunteer) a compatriot who has received a scary-looking summons from the SAT, Guatemala’s answer to the IRS.

In all that time, I admit to encountering occasional corruption or apathy. But there is less of this now, since SAT is much more transparent than the machinery it replaced some years ago. Increasingly, I have found people who were not only honest, but genuinely nice. I have even experienced that rarest of bureaucratic events, the returned phone call.

Doña Tatiana, the former tax commissioner of Sololá Department, was my friend, and remains so even after her trans- fer. I recently met her replacement, Don Pedro, while answering a scary-looking summons of my own. The guard directed me to a row of chairs but, before I could sit, Don Pedro came out of his glass-walled office. He all but grabbed me and my son by the collar, and asked how he could serve me. I quickly thanked him for the apparent special treatment.

During our opening small talk, he remarked (with the candor I have become used to from disarmed officials), that his experience with “foreigners” had, to date, been largely positive. They accepted in principle, he explained, the need for taxation. In this, I imagined, we foreigners tacitly appreciated the contribution to society of tax collectors. Just the kind of person my new friend, Don Pedro, therefore likes to see.

The care and feeding of lonely tax collectors, then, is a delicate art, but one that may yield quick dividends. A little acceptance may melt them de una vez. It is said that watchdogs can smell fear. Similarly, tax officials may be able to smell the dirt of disdain. So, wash up before you go. Dismiss any negative experiences from the past. Pay your taxes, and do so with a smile. Guatemala gives us “foreigners” a good value for our taxes.

In 2005, a bike accident put me in the public hospital for a few days. It was not Club Med, but the care was adequate, and it was free of charge. In the old country, a stay like that would have wiped me out. So I was grateful.

Wonderful thing—those quetzales at work. And if I ever land in the hospital again, perhaps I will be visited by the person who helped make it possible—my friendly local tax collector.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.