IF FACES fall into an unwilled grimace this week, it is because taxes are due. A pinch is felt across the land, with a universal wish that the bill was not so high. But the sting of taxes, paradoxically, is a prompt for gratitude because the returns we file, checks included, are both a signal and a precondition of the sacred treasure we share as a people — also known as commonwealth. Taxes are its sacrament.

The myth is that America was born in rebellion against taxes, and today’s Tea Party movement takes off from that illusion. (The Boston Tea Party of 1773 was not a protest about oppressive taxes. American colonists took the government’s right and duty to levy taxes for granted — but they wanted it to be their government.) In fact, the so-called Tea Party phenomenon that now drives Republican politics is less a movement than a spasm because its radical preference of individual over group undercuts the minimal solidarity required for any authentic political organization, even their own. Absurdly cloaking their fiscal solipsism in the rhetoric of patriotism, the anti-tax crowd assaults the core value of citizenship. The Republican Party is by now almost fully hostage to such political nihilism, which puts it well on the way to self-destruction. Alas, when a major party so narrows its civic sense, the destruction can be general.

But aren’t the Tea Party radicals the real Americans? Wasn’t the fabled “rugged individual’’ born on the nation-shaping frontier — the forever unregulated realm in which “the free and the brave’’ could throw off shackles of government?

No. On the contrary, the steadily receding frontier may have been the single most powerful stimulus of national government, a centralizing authority in Washington responsible for the orderly transition of vast territories into states, with, yes, taxes required for everything from surveys to canals to the protection of pioneers. Taxes paid, on one side, for the decimation of Native Americans, and, on the other, for the abolition of slavery. Ultimately, taxes paid for the creation of what we call — not “these’’ United States, but, in the article that candidate Barack Obama revitalized, “the’’ United States.

The humane spirit of commonwealth, once embraced, is expansive. Taxes paid for roads and for garrisons — and also for health and education. When the needs of some were met, the needs of all were made more apparent. Thus, America’s understanding of government’s role shifted when the people came to a common recognition that, acting together, they could — and should — provide basic necessities of life for Americans who lacked them. Charity yielded to justice. Soon enough, such provision was seen not as a matter of altruism, but as a way to assure the thriving of the whole nation. The old dichotomy between the individual and the group was shown up as false.

The current crisis runs deeper than the fringe crazies who throw tea bags — or even bricks. A broad government retrenchment, reinforced by the severe financial downturn, calls into question basic civic commitments. If the 19th century predecessors of today’s elected officials had not instituted massively ambitious projects for the general welfare (public schools, public libraries, public health services, public parks, and so on), who believes that contemporary legislatures would create such golden structures of the common good? Indeed, many legislators are doing the opposite, building careers on the trashing of social capital. Most blatantly (and as a library trustee, I see this up close and painful), they are wounding schools and libraries with budget cuts that require the abandonment of learners and readers, scholars and researchers — the hollowing out of culture.

And why? Because many officials mistake our mid-April grimace for a signal that the broad citizenry has itself broken faith with the principle of commonwealth. It is not true. We may dislike the tax bite, but we loathe the destruction of civic pillars and the deliberate unraveling of safety nets. Citizens long for leaders who will remind us that what we do this week has nobility in it. And if we have to do more of it — pay higher taxes — so that teachers and librarians, and those they serve, are not humiliated but enriched, we will.
The true patriotism of paying taxes - The Boston Globe