Saturday, 5 July 2014
Government responsible to the public, not just taxpayers
Contributor to The Winnipeg RAG Review Art Cramer has been debating the Manitoba Liberals' Regional Director for Winnipeg East, Kurt Berger, 140 characters at a time via twitter. Before the conversation took a unique turn (for those interested, available here, here, and here) taxes were discussed.
Can't say I entirely agree with colleague Art Cramer's take on the privilege of paying taxes, though he is echoing a sentiment from the father of economics, Adam Smith, who regarded taxes as a "badge of [...] liberty". Certainly, given the regressive nature of sales taxes and user-fees, not all contributors to the public purse are financially privileged, even given that low income Manitobans end up as net beneficiaries of the income tax and transfer system.
I have a problem with Kurt Berger's perspective as well, though. That is his zooming in on being responsible specifically to taxpayers, rather than the general public.
To be sure, every Manitoban over 15 is also a taxpayer given our regressive Provincial Sales Tax. Some Manitobans, however, contribute more to the public purse than others and some are net beneficiaries of the tax and transfer system while others are net contributors to it. Thanks to the progressive nature of income taxes and the fact that a given rich fellow will spend more in total dollars on goods than an individual poor person, people of different socioeconomic classes will also differ in how much they contribute to the public purse on average.
|Government shouldn't be owned by the rich,|
we all deserve a say.
Image obtained from: Wikipedia
percentage of their income for income taxes - unless they're trustfunders - and as a lower percentage of their income for goods via sales taxes).
So the richer the average Manitoban is, the more they'll contribute in taxes and hence the bigger a taxpayer they'll be.
The implicit assumption in Berger's claim seems to be that the government is responsible to members of the public just or mainly because they contribute taxes to the public purse. If tax dollar contribution is how we're measuring citizenship, then that leads to the unfortunate implication that the Government of Manitoba is like a publicly traded company in which a residents' say in governance is proportional to their "stock shares" (amount of taxes) paid to the company (public purse). Hence, the poorer classes are lesser citizens than the richer classes under the "citizens as taxpayers" framework.
As a somewhat old school democrat, this idea strikes me as an elitist and classist attack on equal citizenship. People have a say in government not because of how much they pay, but because the government has the authority to make laws over them. And the public, not just big taxpayers, have a say over how public funds are used because it's revenue generated on their behalf. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi understood some of this when he spoke of his dislike for the term "taxpayer" and preference for "public trust" and "citizen" in political discourse.
UK political philosopher Chris Betram made some similar points in a post with an unfortunately sensationalist title over at the Crooked Timber blog:
The term “the taxpayer” is playing an increasing role in British public debate, often introduced, seemingly, as an apparently neutral synonym for “the public” whilst really being no such thing. The term is endlessly repeated by BBC interviewers asking “tough questions” of politicians and civil servants and it seems as if none of them either notices or is willing to question the ideological assumptions and tacit theory of legitimacy that lie behind the term.
The “taxpayer” trope is a pernicious ideological assault on the very idea of equal citizenship. It is elitist and exclusionary and promulgates a false theory of the state according to which government belongs to the propertied. No it doesn’t: it belongs to its citizens, rich and poor, old and young.
(Chris Betram, in Crooked Timber on November 5, 2013).
The public in general has a right to be pissed off if their representatives waste money paying off friends or doling out corporate welfare rather than fixing roads, hospitals, and helping the poor. Paying more in taxes doesn't give you more of a right to be outraged nor does paying less in taxes give you less of a right to be outraged.
Whether you're a working poor janitor who mostly benefits from the tax and transfer system or a big spending heir to a family fortune, you have the same right to be disgusted at public waste and demand good public investments.
To be sure, the government has a moral duty to not tax any individual to such an extent that their ability to pay is strained to breaking point (i.e. income taxing a parent of 4 who makes 70K/year at a combined provincial-federal average rate of 70%). Practically, governments also have to set tax rates such that enough businesses and people stay in Province so as to contribute to a robust public purse for the public good.
But the government is not obligated to be responsible to certain citizens just because they're taxpayers. The provincial government or any just government is responsible to every member of the public because they govern them.
Even though it's uncommon to talk about "provincial citizenship", I sorta think it makes sense to think of voters in Manitoba as citizens of the province given their similar rights and duties to the provincial government as Canadian citizens have to the Federal one.