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

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Ten Propositions on Taxes and Democracy

Hostility to taxes is commonplace among anarchists as well as right-wing "conservatives" whose advocacy of "smaller" or "more limited" government amounts to anarchism -- since advocacy of ever smaller, ever more limited government without indicating what good government actually is and alone can accomplish is substantially equivalent to anti-governmentality. Exploitation of discontent over taxes is also commonplace among neoliberal/neoconservative right-wing politicians and thinkers who want to ensure taxes subsidize primarily the fortunes of incumbent elites through extractive-industrial-financial corporate-militarism backed by complacent consumerism and organized violence. I for one do not want to smash states, but to democratize them. And an understanding and championing of taxes should be no less indispensable to the work of democratization as its obfuscation and demonization is indispensable to the work of anti-democratization.
Taxes are not really the price we pay for a civilized society -- in Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s, influential phrase -- for civilization is priceless. This is just to recall that commonwealth is not a private commodity but a public good. Taxes are not, for example, fees for discrete services that might be provided otherwise, nor are taxes a price for which there might be discount alternatives. Perhaps the true spirit of Holmes' phrase is captured best in a negative formulation: anti-tax zealots would appear to believe that civilization is the only free lunch.
Certainly taxes are not theft, as anarchists of the right and the left so like to declare, since taxation is a precondition for the constitution and intelligibility of the claim to ownership on which notions of theft depend in the first place.
Neither should taxes be mischaracterized as forced contributions to what might instead be charitable causes, since the basic rights secured through taxation cannot be regarded as matters of charity else they are not truly rights but mere favors.
Taxes are not, however annoying they may seem, burdens on our freedom so much as essential enablers of freedom. Taxes, bonds, and fees are public investments maintaining the legal, infrastructural, and administrative material conditions alone within which political freedom can abide.
Taxes ameliorate undemocratic concentrations of wealth and authority to secure sufficient equity among citizens of diverse fortune. The equity valued by democracy ensures that the diversity also valued by democracy does not disable the demanding and costly democratic processes facilitating collective responsibility, expressivity, criticism, problem-solving and the interminable reconciliation of the aspirations of all the people with whom we share and contest the present world.
Taxes pay for the maintenance of institutions providing nonviolent alternatives for the adjudication of disputes. Taxes pay to secure basic needs to ensure that the scene of consent to everyday association is reliably informed and is non-duressed by the threat of deprivation, inequity, or insecurity. And taxes pay for the accountable administration of commons and public goods without which they are inevitably violated and exploited for short-term profit-taking by minorities to the cost and risk of majorities. Far from representing quintessential state violence, taxes are the enabling condition of a democratic state facilitating nonviolence.
Taxes coupled to representation itself ("No Taxation Without Representation") tie the maintenance of government as such -- an organization invested with legitimate recourse to force with all the clear dangers inhering in that state of affairs -- inextricably to public accountability and democratic legitimacy.
Taxing more those who profit more by their personal recourse to the shared inheritance of human knowledge and culture, to the shared substance of precarious environmental resources on which we all depend for our survival and flourishing, and to the ongoing benefits of collaboratively maintained infrastructure, institutions, norms, trust, legitimacy, and security is not unfair in the least. Progressive taxation follows quite simply from a recognition of the indisputable fact of our radical inter-dependence as both productive and vulnerable beings in the world. This same recognition, of course, is also the foundation for fairness.
Whenever a right wing politician declares all government wasteful, criminal, or corrupt you should pay close attention, because he is revealing his intentions. Wherever government is meant to be of by and for the people, to be anti-government always means to be against the great majority of the people.

I have posted earlier versions of this piece in the past on tax day. Some of the aphorisms anthologized in Dispatches from Libertopia were culled from those earlier pieces. The larger vision of the politics of democratic equity-in-diversity implied in these propositions is elaborated in longer pieces to be found in Against Anarchy and in Arendtian Exercises and scattered in other places.

1 comment:

Elias Altvall said...

I have always felt the conservative idea of smaller government to be meaningless and indicating more a move towards more hierarchy and authoritarianism since after all the "less government" interferes to ensure that public instittutions are fiannced, the more government actually interferes on the behalf of plutocratic interests. But after all the more government regulates without having a popular movement that can ensure democratization the more autocratic a government you will have. The idea of a government by the people, for the people and of the people seems for me to indicate a society with as little hierarchy as possible. Since in its formulation it has the idea of government as coordination not as hierarchical power structures and authoritarian social relationships.