This post has been percolating for a while, and I was motivated to write it by a Royson James column I read a couple of weeks ago. For the first time in a long time I actually have finished everything I needed to do this weekend, so I actually have some time to write. So I’m going to write about what I like to call “The Fallacy of the Taxpayer.” As a prelude, lets talk about fallacies.
Generally, falacies are false notions or beliefs, but more specifically when it comes to discourse it is any type of reasoning or device which renders an argument invalid. In politics I like to define ‘fallacy’ as an argument or device which is deliberately used to reduce the level understanding necessary to form an opinions. Now I’m not going to naively argue that if we just argued factually and reasonably it would all be a better place. There is nothing in human history to suggest that this is remotely possible. But we can still work to maintain some level of intelligent discourse.
Which brings me back to “The Fallacy of the Taxpayer”. To me the Fallacy of the Taxpayer is a device which seeks to re-frame a voter’s understanding of their relationship with government through the lens of taxes paid against services directly received. It’s a very simple device to use, and it is one that we all see more and more. We talk about ‘respect for taxpayers’ or, refer to the taxes that people pay without any rational discussion of what those taxes actually pay for. The point is that everyone does it now, because it has been so successful that people no longer think of themselves as citizens, but taxpayers. Lets take a look at the definition of those two words:
Taxpayer: a person who pays a tax or is subject to taxation.
Citizen: a native or naturalized member of a state or nation who owes allegiance to its government and is entitled to its protection
Notice the differences there? The first describes only what a person does, whereas the other describes the relationship between the individual and the larger group. The thing to remember of course is that when politicians pitch to voters that each and every one of them is both a citizen and a taxpayer. We may not all pay income taxes, or the same amount, but it is impossible to live as an adult citizen without paying taxes in some way, shape or form. We pay taxes on the goods and services we buy, it’s a part of our rent or of owning a property, it’s skimmed from the top of our earnings, etc. If all voters are both citizens and taxpayers then, why the emphasis on the taxpayer angle?
Lets be honest, nobody likes paying taxes, but we do. We understand that those taxes pay for the things that we value as a society, but that understanding is a tenuous one and susceptible to all kinds of influences. This endless ‘taxpayer’ dialogue is designed to weaken that understanding. When we looked at the definition of “taxpayer” and “citizen” we noted how one focused on the individual and the other makes reference to the group. If we only think of the individual then we begin to only think of those government-provided services that impact us directly, and by directly I’m not talking about roads and sewers, but those tangible things that we actively acknowledge in our days; think the hospital emergency room our your kids’ elementary school. The thing about this particular fallacy though is that it works so brilliantly because those other services (welfare, community grants, etc.) are either ‘invisible’ or we don’t see the direct relationship between their expense and our individual benefit, or they’re not the things that people want to avail themselves of even when they need them.
As we hammer the “taxpayer” message into voters we isolate them from the services that benefit the society they belong to, which of course benefits the Conservative agenda overwhelmingly because Conservatives do not believe in the value of many of those services, and its a lot easier to get people to not think of the services their taxes pay for (or understand them) than to convince them not to have them; and that is the key to supporting the Conservative agenda.