Hot! Taxpayers vs. citizens

TheStar.com – opinion/editorials
Published On Thu Sep 15 2011.   Edmund Pries

The suffering hero of our times is, we are told, the tormented taxpayer. Politicians mount campaigns to protect the taxpayer, editorial writers evaluate politicians and their policies on whether they will increase or decrease the “burden” to taxpayers, and some self-described taxpayers have formed organizations to plead their cause and lament their plight. Thus, you have the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Toronto Taxpayers Coalition, to name only two. The latter recently offered an essay contest confined to the simplistic anti-visionary insipidity, “Lower taxes are good for Toronto because . . .”

Over the past few decades, Canadian citizens have been reduced to “taxpayers,” as all sectors of society have increasingly adopted “taxpayers” as the preferred term for the designation of its citizens. Why is this the case and does it matter?

While everyone who pays taxes is obviously a tax payer (two words), the term “taxpayer” (one word) denotes something much more. “Taxpayer” is an individualistic and self-centred definition that imagines taxes as a transaction in which a levy or a tariff is borne and paid by an individual in exchange for specific personally-realized services. Hence, all evaluations and calculations of government actions and community development programs are based simply upon their monetary “cost” to an individual “taxpayer,” without any reference whatsoever to social benefit or community value. As Daniel Kemmis, a thoughtful mayor in Montana, pointed out, taxpayers do not see themselves as citizens of the community engaged in democratic and communal self-governance, but rather as individuals paying tribute in exchange for services. Or, as summed up by American journalist Robert Herold: “Taxpayers seek always to reduce public life to a balance sheet.”

From this perspective, proposed programs and projects of the community are not evaluated on the basis of whether they provide value to the community, but solely and simply on the basis of individual cost in exchange for services to a particular individual, known as the “taxpayer.” The relevant question thus becomes: How has this benefited me personally? Similarly, the highest social good, the preeminent political goal, is simply reduced to one element: lower taxes. Benefit to a neighbour without equal benefit to me is seen as poor value for my tax dollar.

In marked contrast to taxpayers, citizens understand that they are important participants in and responsible for the democratic governance of their society. Citizens are rooted in their community and evaluate all of their contributions from the perspective of contributing to the building and well-being of the total community — of which they are an important part. A citizen seeks to work at building a community founded upon pro-social (as opposed to anti-social) communal values. The operative question for a citizen thus becomes: What contribution am I making to build and strengthen the community for my family and for my neighbours — for my fellow citizens? Citizens will see taxes as a positive contribution to broader society, whether city, province or country.

Taxpayer language has long been the preferred term of the neo-conservative movement and has gained currency in our society due to extensive utilization of this term by some political parties (although increasingly employed by all political parties) and lobby groups. The destruction of social linkages that create a community and the dissociation of citizens from social programs that benefit the whole of society are the direct by-products — and perhaps the intended goals. If everyone is an individual paying their own way, whether in health care or other social services, taxes will always be viewed as a burden, not as a contribution to the communal good. The socially destructive agenda of taxpayer language is clear.

Citizens see their role in society as consisting of both rights and responsibilities. It is not only my right but my responsibility as a citizen to speak out on issues that affect my neighbours and fellow citizens and to ensure the well-being of all in society. Taxpayer thinking is surely what caused Toronto Councillor Doug Ford to erroneously assert that Margaret Atwood should be elected to public office before daring to speak out on civic issues. A citizenship orientation maintains that it is not only Atwood’s inherent right but her express responsibility as a citizen, like it is for every citizen, to speak out and agitate for the well-being of their society.

Our future as a society rests not only on calculations of financial cost to individual tax payers, but on the assessment of communal value. Of course, a civic community’s “balance sheet,” like that of a province or a country, is vitally important, but that balance sheet must also embrace social, community and environmental values. We need health care, education, the arts, care for those who need assistance, and much more. We need a strong community that provides the full infrastructure for a healthy communal life. In short: we need to view ourselves and each other as citizens.

So, next time a politician addresses you as taxpayer, correct him or her and assert your status as a citizen. Then speak out for your community.

Edmund Pries teaches in the Department of Global Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University

< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/article/1054802–taxpayers-vs-citizens >

2 Comments

  1. This article points out a common theme in the mindsets of many Canadian citizens. In the opinion of the majority of Canadians, cuts to social spending and in turn taxes, benefits us. According to Pries, budget cuts to social spending diminish our community values and essentially, our democracy. This article claims that if citizens take pride in the social services that our communities can offer, taxes can become a less concerning issue. This is an issue that has a relevant place in our society, especially with the upcoming provincial election.
    Edmund Pries assumes that taxes should cover health care, education, arts, social assistance, etc. He argues that a strong community is one that has government-run infrastructure, social spending, and higher taxes. He does not address the fact that a strong community doesn’t necessarily result from government-run services.
    Pries does not write about the economic influence lowering taxes can have on our country’s economy. In reality, tax cuts are aimed at increasing Gross National Product. If done properly, lowering taxes can stimulate the Canadian economy by providing disposable income which increases spending and jobs.
    This article does not mention that a lot of citizens are concerned about taxes because they want to know where their money is going. Taxpayers may see the value of infrastructure and social programs, but want to see the wisest use of Canada’s taxes. This makes a focus on the budget more important than Pries believes.
    Pries makes a strong point that the middle and upper class taxpayers gain a lot from the lowering of taxes, but those who are dependent on social programming will suffer. Pries promotes higher taxes and more social spending as the solution to the decrease in community spirit. He suggests a mentality shift in seeing ourselves as more than just taxpayers, but citizens involved in a democratic community that helps out its neighbour when they are in need. I argue that this is only the first step in successful social programming. Citizens need to use their rights to speak out about where our tax dollars are spent. Taxpayers are concerned about how much money the government requires, where citizens must be concerned about what their money is being used for.
    This article focuses on a hot topic. Every Canadian is influenced by the taxation system and has an opinion about taxes and the way our money is used. It is important that methods of economic stimulation and taxation are researched and carefully applied, so that the most responsible system can be implemented. Strategic planning and budgeting is necessary to find a medium between low taxes and effective social programming.
    I think that Edmund Pries makes a very good point in his article. Canadians need to adjust their mentality from a consumerist, individualist way of thinking to a more community driven perspective. As citizens of this country, we need to be actively striving for a thriving community in which people are treated equally and have access to the resources they need. A balance must be achieved between taxes and social spending. The purpose of taxes is to redistribute the wealth in a country. If we continue to lower taxes and make constant cuts to necessary public spending, the purpose of taxes becomes trivial. Careful budgeting of social programs along with a mentality of equality is needed to ensure a successful taxation system.

  2. Suluter Nana Baah

    Pries main focus in this article is concerned with the fact Canadians are now being identified as a “tax payer” rather than communal citizens in a collective society. This new adopted term is a self centered definition that perceives taxes as a transaction in which a bill is borne and paid by an individual in return for a specific personal service. We are no longer participants of a democratic and collective self-governance society where we are functioning for each other’s social benefits and community value but instead are doing things and functioning in a manner that is done for our own personal means. This term of tax payer holds a negative connotation whereby our minds have become solely focused on “everyone doing for their own”. He adds in that taxes used for programs within our community are not being evaluated on the basis of its value towards our society as a whole but now based on the premise of its individual cost for a particular service to a particular individual. The question that he raises is how this is beneficial for me rather than us, which I for one for the most part think in reference to myself and my needs. Yes I understand that taxes are important because we all hold that responsibility like mentioned by Pries, which is to make equal contributions for a more democratic governance of our society but I moreso see it as a burden just because of all the increased taxes and budget cuts that have been made to our healthcare and educational system. As taxes and public spending are being cut in these social sectors we are being forced to diminish our uses of these services and personally acquire them through private sectors. Due to the fact that these private services are offered to a small group of people, the amount spend on cost of these services are increasingly higher in relation to the public services, which results in increased prices for those services as they are privatized. This has become a burden because now we have to introduce these new costs into our budgets since they are no longer provided by the public sector. In general I just think that as taxes are being cut, we are involuntary pushed towards acquiring services at a higher rate, which transforms us from once being a collective group of citizens investing in our social whole, to a group of individual taxpayers who absorb and attempt to deal with their own circumstances. With funding cuts being made to our public programs we are saying that “if you need something, go purchase on your own, and if you can’t afford it, oh well”. If we continue to adopt this single focused mindset as a taxpayer we are only putting ourselves in danger because we refuse to invest in each other which only increase our state of vulnerability for ourselves and the upcoming generations.

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