Taxpayers vs. Citizens: The Battle for the Soul of America

By Yousef K.B.

The last election cycle in the United States was permeated with concerns over the economy.  As the economy entered its third year of crisis, and with continued cuts to public services until only recently the only movement that can be heard of was that of the right-wing Tea Party.  Albeit a very heterogeneous and decentralized movement, its key figures speak of the movement as one that is mainly concerned with economy.  Specifically they decry increase in spending, increased government bureaucracy, tax increases and increasing budget deficits.   What makes the Tea Party worth mentioning is that they are the extreme manifestation of what is mainstream common sense across the US: budget deficit is increasing and that is a threat to all Americans, the national debt is growing and that is a threat to future generations in the US, and the deficit and the debt are the major roadblocks to economic recovery.  Based on this rationale it is argued that the deficit must be reduced immediately and this reduction can only come through a drastic cut in government spending and size, as taxation should be out of the question.   Taxing Americans would result in a slow down in the economy as people have less to spend, businesses would stop investing and hiring people, and even worse the money raised would only help to increase the government’s size adding to its already inefficient structure.  I’m sure you’ve all heard this pitch, whether in the last elections or currently as the budget debates heat up in D.C.   I’m sure you can make a plausible argument against taxation during economically hard times, but the rants and rhetoric against taxes have become a dominant mantra with the emergence of the conservative movement that propelled Reagan to the presidency.    So powerful is this idea that no policy maker dares to speak of new taxes––in good or bad economic times.  The result has been a steady erosion of public programs across the US.  The disproportionate victims of this erosion have been those at the bottom of the labor market as they depend more on these programs, but the so called “middle class” has also been a victim of this tax cutting to an extent that no one wants to admit.

As public spending and taxes are cut in areas such as education and healthcare individuals have to either forgo those services resulting in personal detriment, or to mitigate the decreases in those services by personally acquiring them from private sector.  The private sector offers these services to a smaller number of people than the public sector would, which means the amount they spend on overhead costs in relation to services offered is much higher than the public sector, thus the price of those services increases as they are effectively privatized.  This is in addition to the extra costs incurred by the consumer to pay for the new line in the budget spreadsheets which never existed when these services were provided by the public sector: profits.  So for the taxes that were cut from my father throughout the past decade, he’s had to pay that much and more in increased prices for health insurance and tuition for his kids, to say the least.

Here is the crucial point, however, that goes beyond economic debates about taxation, deficit spending, and Friedmanites versus Keynesians:  as taxes are cut and public sector is privatized forcing people to privately and individually acquire services at higher rates, the population is transformed from a collective of citizens investing in their social whole to a collective of individual tax-payers who consume and attempt to deal with their own situation. If you notice closely, when it comes to education, healthcare, welfare, social security, public transportation, and public spending in general all you hear is tax-payer this or tax-payer that.  Citizenship, or some notion of belonging to a collective and having responsibility for each other, is only mentioned in regards to the punitive aspects of the state: border control, immigration, defending the homeland, neighborhood security, and so on. We are no longer citizens; instead, we have become slowly transmuted into taxpayers.[1]

What is the problem when we no longer identify ourselves as a collective of citizens or members of a greater community, choosing to see ourselves only as a taxpayer?  The French sociologist Emile Durkheim observed that with the rise of the modern industrialized societies, the division of labor amongst us got deeper and ever more specialized.  Our jobs became narrower in scope and each one of us became a specialist in that narrow arena without much knowledge about other areas.  A renaissance man or woman is a historic term without much meaning in contemporary life.  This specialization makes us much more dependant on those around us, as we need everyone around us to do their specific tasks so that all of us can survive.  Think of an assembly line and how each person needs the other that comes after him in order to create the entire product at the end of the line.   So modern society can and does sow the seeds for greater interdependence among people.  At the same time as each of us become specialized, we each become a cog in the machines we operate or in the field or discipline we work in.   As cogs in the machine, each with their own routine, modern society can easily narrow our vision of all those around us leading us to become increasingly isolated from everyone around us, and the obligations we have towards each other. Durkheim termed these two contradictory traits that operate at the same time in modern society as organic solidarity (interdependence) and anomie (isolation due to breakdown of social norms that bring us together).

Modern society can choose to emphasize solidarity amongst its members or to create anomie, to cultivate mutual responsibility and collectivity or isolated individuals pitted against each other as they attempt to survive and prosper.  The idea of taxation in its most elemental form stems from the idea of a collective––known commonly as citizens of a state––that invest in an institution that will offer services to all of them.  The current attacks on taxes and welfare programs generally are premised on the idea that people working individually based on their own interests and satisfying their needs by entering a marketplace and consuming whatever they don’t have, without the need for an oppressive government and its inefficient and expensive programs.  In this view we are not members of an interdependent community but rather a community of nothing more than consumers.  This view taken to its extreme and pure sense is a portrait of self-contained individuals each responsible for him or herself interested in another person as long as that person can provide him with an immediate need.  The underbelly of the current demagogic views against taxation and Libertarian slogans about liberty is anomie––isolated hyper-individuals. 

As we cling to our newfound identities as taxpayers and refuse to invest in each other, we are dangerously adding to the salient vulnerability that each of us feels as we begin to acknowledge that in case we fall there is no net to catch us.   I am astounded to see how the general population is perfectly fine with further cuts to education and healthcare. Do we not see that as we cut spending and the respective public programs they fund, we are telling each other, “if you need something, go buy it yourself, and if you can’t buy it, then tough luck.”  Indeed in these times of ever expanding economic misery we are telling our friends that if you can’t deal on your own, then don’t expect me to help.  With every call for cuts in public spending, we join a resounding consent to relegate all those who can’t survive the dog-eat-dog marketplace we are calling a society to the gutters of American cities and towns. Our inability to see the virtues of taxation is built on an effort to reshape and reconstruct our society based on anomie.

The willingness to not only accept but to advocate for drastic cuts to the public sector as a matter of principle and to ignore the adverse impact on people around us speaks to a spiritual problem.  If we are adamant about advocating for a society built around isolated hyper-individualism, no matter the consequences, I submit to you that we no longer just need to reassess our political economic presuppositions, but the very moral and spiritual foundations that guide our actions.  It seems to me that the struggle today is not for deficit spending or deficit cuts but rather about the soul of America itself, as the Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement waged some four decades ago.


[1] I use the word citizen here with caution as it is a contested term, mostly used today to exclude large migrant populations across the world from rights granted to others in a society in order to create a more docile and mobile labor population.  It is the same economic and political actors that have redefined this word and make up for the large anti-immigrant movement that also calls for austerity measures and cutting tax rates.

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1 Comment

Filed under American Politics

One response to “Taxpayers vs. Citizens: The Battle for the Soul of America

  1. Really appreciated this commentary… thanks for writing

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