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taxes are stealing, but…

April 29, 2011

I was listening to some music today, and it got me thinking about taxes. There’s a song by Corporate Avenger called “Taxes Are Stealing,” which opens with the lines, “Taxes are strong-armed robbery. The collectors of taxes funnel the majority of funds to police [policies?] and intuitions counterproductive to spiritual advancement.” While I can certainly sympathize with the sentiment, I think it’s a little bit more complicated than that. Maybe it’s some kind of fiscal Stockholm syndrome, but the older I get, the more I see taxes as a necessary, temporary evil. Nobody likes paying taxes, but can we really afford to live without them just yet?

To begin with, I should point out that my philosophy of government in and of itself is fairly positive. The way I see it, civil society is the establishment of a cohesive social structure in which the interests of the community as a whole are weighed against that of the individual in an effort to maintain social stability. Government, then, is the physical manifestation of community interests. It creates stability through the establishment and enforcement of laws, and acts as a mediator in disputes between groups and individuals within the community.

Of course, I think it’s preferable if a balance can be struck where individual freedoms aren’t too restricted and the continued survival of the community is reasonably assured, but allowing unlimited freedom amounts to anarchy and lawlessness, which often leads to increased social conflict and instability (as I believe the history of Western civilization shows). How far the government should go in meeting the needs of the community, however, is an open question.

The main problem I see with the current structure is that, for the most part, our government is a manifestation of ruling-class interests — i.e., those who own and control the means of production, finance, natural resources, etc. — and not that of the entire community. In fact, the interests of the ruling class, the interests of capital, are often in conflict with those of average citizens. Although this isn’t anything new, I think it’s something that needs to be changed for us to truly flourish as a society.

(I should stop here to note that I’m simply using the common definition of anarchy given in Merriam-Webster as the (a) absence of government or (b) a state of lawlessness or political disorder due to the absence of governmental authority. If a community as a whole is organized in such a way where the community is self-governing, as envisioned by many anarcho-syndicalists and socialists, with links to adjoining communities across the country (and the world), then that wouldn’t necessarily qualify as anarchy as defined above due to the community’s organizational structure.

My personal feeling on the matter, however, is that a great modern state or community, especially one the size of the US (and more so with ones as populated as, say, India), can’t function in such a way as to promote the flourishing of the community as a whole without some kind of organizational structure, which fits the definition of government as “the organization, machinery, or agency through which a political unit exercises authority and performs functions and which is usually classified according to the distribution of power within it.”

Here, a community as a whole could technically be the ‘political unit’ — ideally being more ‘directly democratic,’ and possessing an organizational structure based more on free association than institutions of coercion (e.g., bodies of armed men, prisons, etc.) — but with very large communities (like very large metropolises or heavily populated states, for example), it’d be difficult if not impossible to have each and every person proposing legislation and directly voting on everything themselves, making some sort of delegation highly desirable, if not necessary.)

That said, I can understand people who are critical of the current government’s management of the system, including tax revenue, since I believe this is something that definitely needs to be monitored and can always be improved. I can also understand people who take the position that taxes are stealing, because, for those who don’t wish to pay them, it’s not done voluntarily. (It may seem voluntary to those who pay willingly, but all one has to do is think about the ‘consequences’ of not paying them to see there really isn’t much of a ‘choice.’) Nevertheless, I don’t see how a complex, modern civil society can function without taxes, especially considering how interconnected everything is. And therein lies the rub.

From one perspective, our income (those of us lucky enough to have one, at least) is made within the context of a complex and highly-organized society, and we use and rely on a common infrastructure that has to be supported and maintained via revenue, everything from the roads we use and our water/sanitation systems, to our local law-enforcement and judicial system. And even if one were critical of some of these institutions and services (e.g., viewing police as a repressive apparatus of the state used to protect property from people), some of them are quite vital.

We often take most of these services and vital pieces of infrastructure for granted, but we’ve become so dependent upon many of them that society as we know it would collapse if they weren’t consistently maintained, and the real question becomes, Who’s responsible for a society’s infrastructure? From this point of view, one could just as easily argue that by not paying taxes, one is stealing whenever they utilize said infrastructure without contributing to its maintenance in some way, and the easiest (and arguably fairest) way is via taxes.

(Also, it can be argued that whenever we do something like start a job or purchase property, we’re essentially agreeing to pay taxes since that’s an upfront part of agreeing to work for a particular employer or the acquisition of property; although, conversely, the way the system is set up, we don’t really have much choice in the matter, so they’re still ultimately ‘coercive’ no matter how much of a positive spin we give them.)

Of course, there are certainly valid counterarguments to this, but I think we have to start from where we’re at; and within the context of the present political economic system, the responsibility falls upon us, the citizens—very few of which, I imagine, would like to see our roads crumble, schools closed or water/sanitation systems shut down. But how can we pay for the labour and materials needed to keep these things in operation in the present system without taxes? Where will the resources come from? By what means will they be distributed?

One alternative I’ve seen discussed recently (and the only really viable one, in my opinion) is a fee-based system, which would theoretically make collecting revenue less coercive, and make how the money’s spent more transparent. The basic idea is that we’d pay for the services we want, and opt out of those we don’t. Sure, it’s one alternative, but I can also see how this could create its own difficulties, not to mention slippery slopes. For examples, taxes are used to help maintain roads and sidewalks. In a fee-based system, we could make every road more or less a toll road in order to pay for repairs, but what about sidewalks? Drivers aren’t using them, so using their fees to fix them would be unpopular. So then we’d have to institute a fee for using sidewalks too, and now we can’t even move about freely without having to cough up some cash every time we do. Talk about inconvenient.

Taken to the extreme, such a system would essentially privatize everything. If services are fee-based, one could just as easily give their money to a corporation who’ll perform a particular service more cheaply (which isn’t necessarily better if they cut corners). And after time, we could end up with private, Walmart-esque corporations in charge of municipal services instead of an elected government. And corporations, by their very structure, are far less accountable to the people than elected officials.

Moreover, a fee-based system that increasingly privatizes services could have other dangers, such as making it more difficult for people with lower incomes to get all the services they need because they’re unable to afford all the fees, things like a proper education, road construction and maintenance, sanitation, etc. This could conceivably create huge slums (areas even more poor and neglected than they already are), further segregate society, and seriously lower the standard of living for lower income families. The redistribution of wealth via taxes helps prevent something like this from happening.

As naive and utopian as it may sound, I believe that a different world is possible—that we can revolutionize the system in such a way as to make taxation unnecessary. But this would take a socio-political revolution on an epic scale, involving a radical economic transformation in which the exploitation, alienation and commodity fetishism of the present system are gradually eliminated via a more socialized mode of production. And for that to have any chance of success, I think it must be an experiment conducted with the consent of the majority of the people, which I doubt will happen overnight, if ever. So until then, taxes may be stealing, but I’m willing to look the other way. At least for now.

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