Politicians of both major parties, and even most of the minor ones, commonly refer to voters as “taxpayers,” usually to show that they remember who pays the bills … even if memory serves for only a short time during the campaign. The New Republic and Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig want to put an end to this divisive rhetoric, man. It “wrongly divid[es] the government into private interest sets,” you know … like how much money they pull out of some people’s pockets to give to others. Power to the people, right on, argues Bruenig, literally:
Which is why its use of the term “taxpayer”—though hardly atypical of political documents—is notable. In the 43-page budget, the word “taxpayer” and its permutations appear 24 times, as often as the word “people.” It’s worthwhile to compare these usages, because the terms are, in a sense, rival ideas. While “people” designates the broadest possible public as the subject of a political project, “taxpayer” advances a considerably narrower vision—and that’s why we should eliminate it from political rhetoric and punditry.
How, pray tell, do we do that? By declaring a “trigger warning” so that those who get the vapors over recognizing which citizens pay the bills can retire to Adult Pre-K? That seems to be big trend now, in which heterodox opinions get treated as physical assaults, complete with trauma amelioration.
And talk about exquisite timing. What better point in the year can one pick to deride the recognition of paying taxes than, er, tax season?
Bruenig argues that we need to get away from the concept of getting one’s value out of tax payments:
Along with wrongly dividing the public into various private interest sets, taxpayer terminology also seems to subtly promote the idea that a person’s share in our democratic governance should depend upon their contribution in taxes. If government should respond to the will of taxpayers because programs are incorrectly supposed to be financed on their dime, then those contributing larger shares would seem to be due greater consideration, like shareholders in a company. (It would also mean that the countless undocumented immigrants who contribute more than $10 billion a year in taxes ought to become voting citizens.) But this view is precisely contrary to the democratic vision invoked in historical verbiage like “consent of the governed,” as it mistakes the source of a person’s rights. Our share in democracy arises not from what we can pay into it, but from the fact that we are persons and personhood confers certain obligations and dues.
It’s almost impossible to unwind all of the logical fallacies and straw men in this paragraph (and the essay as a whole, too), but let’s tackle a couple. No one has ever suggested that paying taxes equals citizenship, ever. We have assessed taxes on resident aliens, foreign business operations, and so on ever since we’ve had taxes, and that includes sales taxes and income taxes. It doesn’t make resident aliens or those on work visas citizens, and it certainly doesn’t do the same for illegal immigrants either.
“Taxpayers” in the political construct means citizens who pay taxes, and that actually still includes those whom Bruenig claims are being excluded by the term. Even those receive more than they pay in pay some kinds of taxes, whether it’s Social Security, sales taxes at the local and state level, and so on. It’s fatuous beyond belief to hear “taxpayers” and think it’s a crypto-construct to deride the so-called “47 percent.”
That, however, is how Bruenig takes it — and she wants it replaced by revolutionary rhetoric, of course:
Whereas “taxpayers” is strewn throughout political documents, “people” is associated with populist and revolutionary movements, and not for nothing. Power to the people, the evergreen revolutionary slogan trumpeted by popular fronts around the world, has a ring that power to the taxpayersdoes not precisely because it demands an inclusive view of public goods. The same could be said about the first line of the U.S. Constitution: “We the Taxpayers” would have been an odd construction for a nation born from a revolt against British taxation. So let’s leave “taxpayer” to the IRS and remove it from everyday speech. With every thoughtless repetition of the word, we’re carrying political water.
Again, this confuses citizenship with paying taxes, but it confuses something else, and deliberately. The argument aimed at “taxpayers” is almost always an argument for accountability for the use of those “public goods.” It’s an appeal for common-sense use of those goods that should be public, as well as respect for the goods that shouldn’t be public, but left in the hands of those who created them. It’s no accident that Bruenig demands that we all use the same style guide as “popular fronts around the world,” almost all of which envision the seizure of all goods as public, with very little possibility of accountability as to how they get distributed.
The New Republic sounds a lot more like the People’s Republics of the world these days. (via Steve Hayward)