Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ways of Thinking about Taxes

The main motivation of the political right in the U.S. and Canada over the past couple of years seems to center primarily around fiscal issues. The tea partiers and most conservatives I know give social issues a lower priority than did right-wingers of even 10 years ago. And the main right-wing complaint I hear seems to be some variation of, or a sentiment similar to, the following question:

What right does the government have to tell me how to spend my money?

The thing is, most people reading this probably live in some form of a representational democracy. And if you're one of those people, that question doesn't really make sense as a complaint. It's true, of course, that governments decide how taxes are allocated, but it's also true that you decide on the make-up of your government (if you exercise your vote). You vote for people who you think will reflect your priorities and advocate for causes you believe in. To answer the above question concisely then, the government has a right to tell you how to spend your taxes because you elected them.

Taxes and voting go hand-in-hand in a democracy. The founders of the U.S. knew this. Note that they were railing against taxation without representation, not against taxes. If you're eligible to vote, you can't make the same complaint they did. Some people, such as permanent residents, do suffer from taxation without representation because they can't vote but pay taxes as anyone else would. But for people who can vote, the whole idea is to vote for people who will reflect your priorities and act as your agent. If you're a conservative and favor small government, lower taxes and a right-leaning social agenda, then by all means support the people who stand up for that. The government isn't telling you how to spend your money, you're telling the government how to spend your money. You decide.

"Wait," you might say, "I don't really make that decision. I just get one vote, and the people I voted for didn't even get elected." Well, that's tough. You get one vote in a democracy. If you had more power than that, it wouldn't be a democracy. In practice, some people or entities (e.g. lobbying firms, huge corporations) do have more power than that, and a big part of the liberal agenda is to try to counteract that and empower the single voter. The proverbial "little guy" that politicians are always blathering on about.

If you're a libertarian, your objection might be harsher. "I don't want to pay any taxes at all. It's my money." Some libertarians like Robert Nozick went so far as to describe taxes as being the fruits of slave labor. That's a real misunderstanding of what taxes are. Maybe a decent analogy is with membership fees. If you live in Canada or the U.S., for example, you enjoy many benefits and advantages of a well-developed country with decent infrastructure, security and some semblance of a social safety net. If you were born in Canada or the U.S., you are a winner in what billionaire Warren Buffet (who favors higher taxes on the rich) calls the Ovarian Lottery. You were born into a life of relative ease, comfort and massive potential. Taxes are one way you pay your dues in the land of plenty. We make exceptions for people in extreme poverty, but generally we consider tax-shirkers to be looking for a free ride.

A libertarian could counter again and say, "I don't want any of those advantages. I voted for minarchy!" Realistically, the chaos and anarchy of minarchism would eventually lead to some form of tax-funded government, even if it were limited. But if you feel really strongly about it, can I suggest Somalia?

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