Reviving #ThePublicGood, part 5: Taxes and the role of government | #TOpoli #onpoli #cdnpoli

quote-taxes-are-the-price-we-pay-for-a-civilized-society-oliver-wendell-holmes-jr-238085

With today’s lesson, we focus on one of the most loaded topics in public conversation: taxation. Strap in, it’s going to get a little bumpy.

It’s easy to hate the idea of taxation, I know. And god knows, there’s a lot invested in cranking up that hatred. We’ll examine the reasons for that investment in due course, but for now, let’s just focus on first principles: taxes are the price of civilized society. We don’t live in Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature, wherein all are at war with one another; in return for a measure of security and as a step up from anarchy, barbarism, and incessant war, we agree to surrender a degree of our autonomy to this larger thing called “society.” It goes back a ways — farther than Rob Ford, David Miller, or Mel Lastman, in fact. Farther back than Agnes MacPhail, Nellie McClung, John A. MacDonald, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, John Locke, the Magna Carta, Jesus Christ, and maybe even to the point where humankind started to record history. It’s a robust and resilient thing, civilization is, but it’s not unbreakable.

And what is the fundamental characteristic of civil society? It is a collective commitment to pool our efforts, to live by common norms and rules (more on that later), and to combine our efforts to accomplish, as a group, that which we cannot accomplish on our own. You know — roads, hospitals, civic infrastructure, collective defence, electricity, running water, clean air, and other things conducive to the public good. We act together to do things for the collective benefit.

And how do we accomplish those things? By pooling our resources. By paying taxes. That, in its most basic terms, is what taxation is. We determine collectively, through the democratic process and our elected representatives, what our social priorities are, we pool our resources, and then we allocate our pooled resources in accordance with those priorities. In other words, we “tax” and “spend.” It’s not right or left. It’s not socialism. It’s not capitalism. It’s not liberal or conservative. It’s not evil, it’s not confiscation, it’s not theft, and it’s not dictatorship. It’s government. It’s what government does. All the frippery and bullshit that’s been thrown at it just clouds the issue.

So now that we’ve established what taxes are and what they’re supposed to do, let’s talk about their role in democratic governance. Healthy, livable and functional communities, I’d respectfully submit, are not built by people who focus on keeping taxes low. Let’s make our biases clear straight off. Emphasizing low taxes at the expense of everything else isn’t just shallow thinking any more. Given the failures of far-right governance and the damage inflicted by years of devotion to so-called “austerity,” I’d submit that it verges on sociopathic.

Make no mistake, dear friends. When you cut taxes, you kneecap government’s ability to act in The Public Good. And that’s its role.  Government is there to enhance the public good by working to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s not there to make a profit, it’s not there to strengthen the brand, it’s not there to generate returns for shareholders. There will be more about the fetishizing of The Market and The Private Sector later, but for now, let’s just focus on government’s core function.

And it’s here that we must re-emphasize the non-partisan nature of this little project. It’s not as if I’ve made my feelings about the Toronto mayoral shitstorm a secret, although I’ve been trying to dial it back for a while, but let’s be clear: this is not about Rob Ford. It’s easy to get caught up in the crack, the coarse boorishness, the racism, the sexism, the homophobia, and the other non-stop embarrassments, and lose sight of the fact that it’s the whole small-government, private-sector-market-fetishizing, low-taxing, union-hating mindset that’s toxic. It’s a mindset that rejects the whole notion of the public sphere as such. That’s what’s captured the mantle of “conservatism,” and that’s what needs to be pushed back.

The pushback starts with the shallow and destructive fixation on “respect for taxpayers.” Forget about the current administration’s spectacular failures and hypocrisy in that regard for a moment, and let’s focus on the misdirected emphasis and the attendant enfeeblement of any collective commitment to The Public Good. When you reduce the relationship between people and government to one of taxpayer and tax collector, you’re inevitably setting up a dynamic of resentment, hostility, smallness of mind, and meanness of spirit. It’s a very sad, angry and limiting view of citizenship, of our collective well-being, and of public life. This isn’t conservatism. It’s destructive, atavistic bullshit.

You want evidence? Well, let’s work those critical-thinking skills, shall we? Just ask yourselves whose interests are served by such a poisonous agenda. From this, healthy communities, committed citizens, and well-appointed public spheres do not spring. It’s fine if you’ve got the resources to buy your own infrastructure and retreat behind the walls of your private enclave, but I’d submit it’s not too healthy for the rest of us.

We are citizens, not just taxpayers. Not residents, not customers, not voters, not consumers. We are more than that. It is with the idea of citizenship that we express our sense of community and our aspiration to  work together for the greater good. As citizens, we have obligations to one another, and to something bigger than our individual interests — and it is through our collective action and our contribution to public resources that we fulfill those obligations.

I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious (strangled derisive laughter — ed.), but I haven’t got much time for people who bitch about “goddamn government wasting my tax money.” News flash, folks: it’s not your money. It’s society’s money, to be spent in accordance with duly determined public priorities. You get to have a say in that determination through your elected representatives and the democratic process, but you don’t get to take your ball and go home if you don’t get the results you want.

You can bitch and moan and begrudge every nickel you pay in taxes, or you can have a healthy society. I know which way I’d go.

ETA: I’d be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the guidance of my wise friend Alex Himelfarb here. He’s more eloquent in his sleep than I’ll ever be wide awake.

ETA: Trish Hennessy also. She and Alex are the finest civic and moral guides a fella could ask for.

 Related posts:

Cycling in Toronto and the toxic effect of consistent anti-bike rhetoric | #TOpoli #BikeTO

https://twitter.com/kiwinerd/status/349540526325903360

Bit of a change-up here, folks.

Usually it’s Daren who gets into the specifics and applies his wonderful witty blend of deconstruction, observation and analysis, while yours truly drops in every now and then with the windy, sententious “let’s all take a step back and put this into a bit of historical context,” yada yada yada.

Bit different today. I had some friends over yesterday, and one of them, a far more committed cyclist than I, was describing a confrontation she recently had with a motorist. She brought video. Because the matter’s still before the legal system, I won’t name names or get into specifics.

In brief, she had words with a guy in a van who yelled at her to get off the road, arguing that “roads are for cars.” Now where have we heard that before? She retorted, quite correctly, that as a cyclist she had just as much right to be on the road as him. Next thing you know, the son of a bitch literally ran her off the road with his truck. On purpose. She had to be hospitalized. She needed stitches. Thank god she didn’t break any bones.

But there’s a lesson here, and it goes beyond the specific circumstances of this one incident. Anyone who rides a bike in Toronto’s more than likely to have had words with a hostile motorist or gotten the door prize or any of a number of hazards that cyclists have to face on a regular basis.

Now, recall one of Daren’s recent posts about some of the people who drive private automobiles and their sense of entitlement:

There’s no war on the car going on. It’s the exact opposite. This is all about the over-weening sense of entitlement and primacy in the minds of those using their private vehicles as their sole source of getting around the city. … a car driver’s sense of their right to the road is boundless.

That’s part of the context. Add to that the consistent drumbeat of hostility and vindictiveness toward cyclists from certain sectors of Toronto’s political sphere and it’s not too hard to draw the connection to my friend’s experience. In brief, as I’ve argued previously,

it’s become more socially acceptable, among a certain segment of the population, to abuse, threaten and even assault cyclists and other users of the road.

Now, maybe it’s just me and my white male privilege talking, and / or my middle-class upbringing, and / or my fetish for principled conservatism, and / or maybe even just my bourgeois nostalgia for civility, but how is this making our city better? Isn’t it in all our interests to push back against this? We’re all in this together.

Happy Canada Day, y’all.

Related posts:

Nuance, complexity, and why progressives are frequently at a disadvantage | #TOpoli #onpoli #cdnpoli

Couple of quick thoughts about efforts to reform the voting system, spurred, as is often the case, by another thoughtful and well-crafted post from Daren.

I’ll confess at the outset that I haven’t really given that much thought to the various options, be they ranked ballots, single transferable votes, pure proportional representation, or whatever. The debate’s been carried by smarter and better-informed people than me. I’ll also disclose that I consider Dave Meslin, one of the guys working on RaBIT, a friend and a civic hero, even if I haven’t always agreed with him.

But that’s not my purpose today. As Daren observes,

those speaking under the banner (if not official endorsement) of Fair Vote Canada – the side of proportional representation and against ranked ballots – did themselves no favours.

I’m not taking sides in that particular debate because, as I’ve admitted, it’s complicated and I haven’t given it as much thought as I should. That the dysfunctions of our current First Past The Post system don’t really serve the needs of democratic governance ought to be self-evident by now; it underlines the need for serious and well-considered electoral reform, at every level from the municipal to the federal.

No, what concerns us today is the challenge posed by complexity itself. Daren’s not the first observer to note the internecine warfare among various progressive factions, whether they’re championing electoral reform, a particular set of social or economic measures, or even discursive change. It’s never especially easy to analyze arguments, to evaluate evidence, and to follow chains of reasoning — hence this little corner’s continuing fascination with the notion of critical thought and its importance to the demands of engaged citizenship.

It’s difficult to approach this without sounding all preachy (really? we hadn’t noticed — ed.), but that’s inherent in any worthwhile public-policy discussion. Anything that involves multiple objectives, multiple stakeholders, conflicting priorities, and finite resources is going to require a difficult process of analysis and evaluation. It takes time, concentration, and a willingness to embrace complexity, as well as an acknowledgement that such things rarely boil down to simple answers. In short, it’s about seeing nuance, making tradeoffs, recognizing shades of grey.

And that, I’d submit, is why those willing to engage that way are so often at a disadvantage. Not only are they asking more of their fellow citizens than the purveyors of simplistic catchphrases and lapel-button slogans — they’re also more prone to thrashing out their differences in public. The term “message discipline” isn’t an accident. When you can reduce complex issues of governance to bumper-sticker memes like “gravy train” or “strong stable majority,” you demand far less of people, and you give them an excuse to turn off their critical faculties.

It’s effective, but it’s also wrong, and it betrays not respect for people, but contempt. We needn’t delude ourselves that engaging our fellow citizens critically is an easy thing, but ultimately it suggests a great deal more respect for them.

To nuance, then, and to raising the conversation.

Related posts: