Saturday, 5 July 2014

Government responsible to the public, not just taxpayers

Be Warned: Some attempts at philosophizing here.

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
Generally, those with more money will give more to the public purse (and usually as a higher
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.



  1. The NDP government would be unwise to dismiss the sentiment of people that they are paying for service and often feel they are not getting it. The upset I hear from some NDP is not that tax went up but that there was a promise it wouldn't. Moreover, there was a promise to take it to the Manitoba people. That broke a trust with many who normally support the party.

    It is a while before the next election but I suspect it will be more hard fought than the last one. The debate in essence is not just about the tax but about trustworthiness.

    The federal Liberals have spent a long time in the wilderness as a result of breach of trust.

  2. The NDP government would be unwise to dismiss the sentiment of people that they are paying for service and often feel they are not getting it.

    Uh, okay? Most of my post wasn't about political tactics or electioneering strategies.

    Taxpayers perform a crucial civic duty, however, paying more taxes does not give on more of a right to public services than someone who pays less taxes. A working poor janitor has just as much right to quality public services as a South End chiropractor.

    The upset I hear from some NDP is not that tax went up but that there was a promise it wouldn't. Moreover, there was a promise to take it to the Manitoba people. That broke a trust with many who normally support the party.

    Much of the disappointment over the sales tax hike is indeed due to the breach of public trust involved in both lying at election time about it and not holding a referendum. Lying about tax policy seems to be an unfortunate trend when it comes to politicians, everywhere from George H. W. Bush's "read my lips" to the promise from the Chretien Federal Liberals before the 1993 election to scrap the GST.

    Much of the anger at the hike, however, seems to stem from the "taxed to death" angle Manitoba Liberal Winnipeg East director Kurt Berger touched on there.

    The public hearings on the PST were filled with people from towns in southern Manitoba and south Winnipeg suburbanites anger about the oppression of paying high taxes.

    The drop in support for the NDP was concentrated, initially, in middle to upper middle income voters before spreading to low income voters. The NDP has also recovered some lower income support in recent polls.

    This is strange, given the "taxed to death" angel, as the PST - which doesn't include rebates - is a regressive tax. Those with higher incomes, as a share of their income, pay less than the working poor.

    Why, then, are those most upset about tax oppression those most able to bear it?

  3. Because those who are most able to bear it want to pay less tax overall, and it's irrelevant to them whether they are paying less in comparison to others who earn less but pay more.
    Having said that, I really think that they don't know they pay less overall.
    But this brings up a wider discussion about taxation and citizenship. And what is not brought into view is how we ended up with the HST/PST and downloading of programs and services. Now that is a much wider discussion of regressive taxation.