Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Eating the Hand That Feeds Them

Taxes are not theft, my deluded pampered market libertarian friends, and neither is property theft, my deluded well-meaning libertarian socialist comrades. I fear we must all walk and chew gum at the same time and recognize that taxation, theft, and ownership are three different things.

These are interdependent categories but are never properly reducible to one another. Certainly all of these categories can be pushed to limits that will take on the coloration of the other categories, but any analysis that thinks of the one entirely in terms of the other is misleading you and facilitating your manipulation for purposes that are not your own.

Of course, one of the greatest difficulties for progressives and democrats in the United States of North America at the moment is that they quail before the epic task of (re-)educating a hostile and profoundly anti-intellectual culture into a real understanding that a working and legitimate state is indispensable to the establishment of justice, the provision of security, and the promotion of general welfare.

This oft-remarked American anti-intellectualism isn't, in my view, by the way, any kind of special frailty or sin uniquely pronounced and so uniquely uncircumventable in Americans as people, but is mostly the straightforward consequence of a few accidents of history (vast readily exploitable resources, geographical sequestration from enemies with comparable levels of organization and technology, a constant influx of diversity), alongside, needless to say, the not-at-all-accidental enslavement and ongoing exploitation of whole classes of human beings, all of which has insulated privileged Americans more than is usually the case from the negative consequences of their own bad decisions.

Apart from the pernicious impact of an ongoing special vulnerability to fundamentalist ideologies, I think the notorious incuriosity, complacency, and mediocrity of American society (which has probably frustrated a few evil developments along with the good) is probably mostly the stubborn straightforward bovine unresponsiveness of comfortable mammals rather than anything particularly diabolical.

Anyway, taxes are a price we pay for civilization and democrats face a steep hill in taking up their proper defense to mostly lazy, uncritical, and pampered Americans. But this is simply a task that cannot be put off any longer.

When Republicans say that "government is the problem," Democrats must respond that nobody who thinks such a thing should ever be entrusted with a position in government, since it is bad government not all government which is the problem, and those who cannot grasp in principle the very notion of good government are inevitably its worst abusers: Governments are administered to solve problems other institutions cannot. When Republicans say that taxes are "your money," Democrats must respond, as Chairman Dean has always done, that Republicans cannot be trusted with your money, and that all of us as citizens have the power: It's your Government.

I say all of this as a preamble to linking to something I found in a column earlier today, making a point I have often heard and which always frustrates me -- namely, that despite all the blustering "rugged individualist" anti-tax talk of the swamp-dwelling snake handlers of the so-called "Red-States," it is persistently the inhabitants of these states who gulp down the tax largess of the civilized "Blue States" they disdain. Here is a link to the article I read today, but of course this is a point that has often been made (not that the lesson seems to have penetrated the brains of those who most conspicuously need to understrand it).

It is crucial that this point be made by Democrats. It exposes very conspicuously the basic difference that relatively cosmopolitan secular society works (to the extent that it is allowed to do so) incomparably better than the backward relatively feudalist enclaves in which conservatives like to collect together to congratulate one another about their superiority no matter what the facts are. And it also speaks to very deep notions of fairness that Americans are very likely to respond to in ways that will benefit democrats.

But it is important that the point be embedded in a larger critique that serves democratic purposes rather than conservative ones. The basic unfairness of liberals forever subsidizing their own exploitation by those who disdain them must not feed into the general popular frustration with taxation as such -- which of course will always arouse at least the same resentment that inclement weather does, even among those who recognize its indespensability. Democrats must always insist that taxation as such is not a problem, but that taxation without representation is always pernicious, so that we redirect the populist resentment of unfair taxes into a movement to ever more radically democratize the social institutions that rely on taxation for their funding.

Democrats must shift the language away from talk of "bigger" or "smaller" government (which in fact assumes that government is oppressive in nature, even if possibly inevitable or necessary, and that we must tinker with its scope to protect us from its dangers) to talk of good against bad government (which assumes, exactly to the contrary, that government can be good and that its legitimacy requires that it be good, and that we must reform it to ensure that it is as good as may be). Likewise, Democrats must shift the language away from talk of tax "burdens" and tax "relief" (which assumes taxation is a violation in nature, even if possibly inevitable or necessary, and that we might liberate citizens by reducing its scope), to talk of the real problems that governments solve with the money they demand, and how accountable governments are to the citizens on which they depend for that money (which assumes, exactly to the contrary, that taxation can be good and that its legitimacy requires it address real problems that cannot be resolved otherwise and that the institutions it empowers are ever more responsive and accountable to democratic citizens).


Anonymous said...

Did you write this with a Webster in hand. get over yourself

Doctor Logic said...

Excellent piece, Dale.

Good government vs. Bad government, check. I'll burn it into my brain.