I'm generally not one given to political commentary, other than believing most politicians to be snakes, liars, and cheats. However, the following article struck a chord with me and essentially echoed something I've been thinking for a long time and something that is somewhat near to my heart. This originally appeared in the Toronto Star on September 15, 2011.
Taxpayers vs. citizensThe suffering hero of our times is, we are told, the tormented taxpayer. Politicians mount campaigns to protect the taxpayer, editorial writers evaluate politicians and their policies on whether they will increase or decrease the “burden” to taxpayers, and some self-described taxpayers have formed organizations to plead their cause and lament their plight. Thus, you have the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Toronto Taxpayers Coalition, to name only two. The latter recently offered an essay contest confined to the simplistic anti-visionary insipidity, “Lower taxes are good for Toronto because . . .”
Over the past few decades, Canadian citizens have been reduced to “taxpayers,” as all sectors of society have increasingly adopted “taxpayers” as the preferred term for the designation of its citizens. Why is this the case and does it matter?
While everyone who pays taxes is obviously a tax payer (two words), the term “taxpayer” (one word) denotes something much more. “Taxpayer” is an individualistic and self-centred definition that imagines taxes as a transaction in which a levy or a tariff is borne and paid by an individual in exchange for specific personally-realized services. Hence, all evaluations and calculations of government actions and community development programs are based simply upon their monetary “cost” to an individual “taxpayer,” without any reference whatsoever to social benefit or community value. As Daniel Kemmis, a thoughtful mayor in Montana, pointed out, taxpayers do not see themselves as citizens of the community engaged in democratic and communal self-governance, but rather as individuals paying tribute in exchange for services. Or, as summed up by American journalist Robert Herold: “Taxpayers seek always to reduce public life to a balance sheet.”
From this perspective, proposed programs and projects of the community are not evaluated on the basis of whether they provide value to the community, but solely and simply on the basis of individual cost in exchange for services to a particular individual, known as the “taxpayer.” The relevant question thus becomes: How has this benefited me personally? Similarly, the highest social good, the preeminent political goal, is simply reduced to one element: lower taxes. Benefit to a neighbour without equal benefit to me is seen as poor value for my tax dollar.
In marked contrast to taxpayers, citizens understand that they are important participants in and responsible for the democratic governance of their society. Citizens are rooted in their community and evaluate all of their contributions from the perspective of contributing to the building and well-being of the total community — of which they are an important part. A citizen seeks to work at building a community founded upon pro-social (as opposed to anti-social) communal values. The operative question for a citizen thus becomes: What contribution am I making to build and strengthen the community for my family and for my neighbours — for my fellow citizens? Citizens will see taxes as a positive contribution to broader society, whether city, province or country.
Taxpayer language has long been the preferred term of the neo-conservative movement and has gained currency in our society due to extensive utilization of this term by some political parties (although increasingly employed by all political parties) and lobby groups. The destruction of social linkages that create a community and the dissociation of citizens from social programs that benefit the whole of society are the direct by-products — and perhaps the intended goals. If everyone is an individual paying their own way, whether in health care or other social services, taxes will always be viewed as a burden, not as a contribution to the communal good. The socially destructive agenda of taxpayer language is clear.
Citizens see their role in society as consisting of both rights and responsibilities. It is not only my right but my responsibility as a citizen to speak out on issues that affect my neighbours and fellow citizens and to ensure the well-being of all in society. Taxpayer thinking is surely what caused Toronto Councillor Doug Ford to erroneously assert that Margaret Atwood should be elected to public office before daring to speak out on civic issues. A citizenship orientation maintains that it is not only Atwood’s inherent right but her express responsibility as a citizen, like it is for every citizen, to speak out and agitate for the well-being of their society.
Our future as a society rests not only on calculations of financial cost to individual tax payers, but on the assessment of communal value. Of course, a civic community’s “balance sheet,” like that of a province or a country, is vitally important, but that balance sheet must also embrace social, community and environmental values. We need health care, education, the arts, care for those who need assistance, and much more. We need a strong community that provides the full infrastructure for a healthy communal life. In short: we need to view ourselves and each other as citizens.
So, next time a politician addresses you as taxpayer, correct him or her and assert your status as a citizen. Then speak out for your community.
Edmund Pries teaches in the Department of Global Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University