Tuesday, May 18, 2010
What are taxes for?
Today’s Grand Forks Herald (PDEQ’s local newspaper) has a story about the city council approving community gardens. The city itself has a notoriously bad track-record for approving new projects – it took us five years to get a dog park – but after some controversy, and by a narrow vote, the gardens were approved. The article reports that some residents opposed the gardens for two different reasons. The first is their claim that it would be “unsightly and bring strangers into the neighborhood.” I lived near community gardens in Boston for close to four years. They were beautiful, and more importantly, the attentive and caring gardeners made the area more safe, not less. There were always people around, people who had a sense of ownership and affection for the area. It was, indeed, a safe haven. And, of course, this underscores the important realization that strangers are not bad. Most newcomers are assets to communities – variety is, after all, the spice of life.
It is however the second reason that is the occasion for this post: a comment made by Ms. Sherri Brossart, a local resident. She is quoted as saying, “This is my neighborhood. I did not pay takes to have that community area.” And here is where the philosophical issue is most explicit. She claims she does not pay taxes to support a community and I would contend just the opposite, that this is precisely why she paid them in the first place.
In the last few decades, Americans have come to believe two false things about taxes. The first and less dangerous notion is that one can pick and choose what their money contributes to. The government does not work like this and it shouldn’t. Large-scale projects are only possible when citizens pool their wealth to create large amounts of capital. If we could select what we funded, there would be inadequate funding for the military, drug enforcement, schools, or highway repair. Everyone would support only their pet projects and few of them would have enough to succeed. But the more dangerous attitude about taxes is that we pay the money for ourselves. People regularly claim “I pay taxes so my streets will be safe,” or “I pay taxes so my child can go to school.” But this is not what taxes are for and this is where Ms. Borssart makes her mistake. We pay taxes so that everyone’s streets will be safe, and we do so to let other people’s children go to school, not just our own. That is what makes us a community, a society of interwoven individuals with a common national project. It is what allows John Rawls to claim that a just society is one where people acknowledge that they all share the same fate.
If Ms. Brossart wants to say that her taxes cannot go to someone else’s community garden – and by the way, I have a backyard and have no interest in participating in the garden; this is not a self-serving blog post – than theirs (and mine) shouldn’t go to her street lamps. If she can’t support a community endeavor like the garden, then I don’t want my money going to the police that protect her and the fire fighters that hose down her house. Those things don’t help me, so why should my money serve her interests. It’s my money after all, not hers.
But, of course, I do want her to have those protections. I want her to be safe, secure, and happy in her home, just as I want that of every American. And this is why I pay taxes to the community and not to a given project. Ms. Brossart just doesn’t understand want it means to live under common governance, and it is unfortunate that our civic education has let this attitude prevail.
Adam Smith told us that one of the necessary roles of government is to provide people with things to do. This helps educate the citizenry, keep people from being self-destructive, curb factionalism, and create public space for community cohesion. The community garden is precisely an example of a cohesive activity. This is also why Smith thought taxation was permissible and not theft, as some falsely claim. The question now is whether he was right, whether I am in my interpretation. Are taxes for services to our selves or are they to assist the community? Answering this philosophical question will go a long way to solving some of the most divisive issues in our country today.
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