Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Boston Globe: The True Patriotism of Paying Taxes

Decades of drip-drip propaganda have created a situation in which the reflex reactions of most media commentators are, at best mildly, at worst viscerally, anti-tax. For example, this blogger is frequently interviewed by radio interviewers who open discussions with something along the lines of "no-one likes to pay their taxes, so why do you want to crack down on places which help them avoid taxes?" Which makes it all the more refreshing to read an op-ed in the Boston Globe which firstly gets it right about the roots of the Boston Tea Party and, secondly, reflects sensibly on how societies suffer as a result of falling tax revenues.

The background to the Boston Tea Party matters because too many people have bought into the idea that this was essentially an anti-tax affair. It was not: it was about accountability and representation:

The myth is that America was born in rebellion against taxes, and today’s Tea Party movement takes off from that illusion. (The Boston Tea Party of 1773 was not a protest about oppressive taxes. American colonists took the government’s right and duty to levy taxes for granted — but they wanted it to be their government.)

Hence the slogan that resounded round the world and back again: No Taxation Without Representation. The slogan still resonates, though few people have also joined the dots between the struggle for representative government in the United States and the equally fierce struggle by the slave-owning elites of the American South who were determined to place mighty barriers in the way of anything that might lead to truly democratic government (you can read more about this here).

Fast-forward to the current epoch and the circumstances have changed. Too many of the powerful elites that pack in around Washington, London and Brussels can strongly influence policy making to their own benefit, and are world leaders in tax evasion and slashing and burning any government expenditure that doesn't directly benefit them. The slogan for today is No Representation Without Taxation.

The anti-tax culture that grips current political debate is rapidly corroding our sense of citizenship and the vitality of our political institutions:

In fact, the so-called Tea Party phenomenon that now drives Republican politics is less a movement than a spasm because its radical preference of individual over group undercuts the minimal solidarity required for any authentic political organization, even their own. Absurdly cloaking their fiscal solipsism in the rhetoric of patriotism, the anti-tax crowd assaults the core value of citizenship. The Republican Party is by now almost fully hostage to such political nihilism, which puts it well on the way to self-destruction.

What applies to the Republican Party in the USA applies in equal measure to conservative parties in Europe, some of which, the British Conservative Party for example, espouse vague ideas about 'big society' which unpack into yet another assault on democratically accountable government.

And the outcome of this long and sad trudge away from values of citizenship and democratic accountability is as clear to see in Britain as it is in the USA:

The current crisis runs deeper than the fringe crazies who throw tea bags — or even bricks. A broad government retrenchment, reinforced by the severe financial downturn, calls into question basic civic commitments. If the 19th century predecessors of today’s elected officials had not instituted massively ambitious projects for the general welfare (public schools, public libraries, public health services, public parks, and so on), who believes that contemporary legislatures would create such golden structures of the common good? Indeed, many legislators are doing the opposite, building careers on the trashing of social capital. Most blatantly (and as a library trustee, I see this up close and painful), they are wounding schools and libraries with budget cuts that require the abandonment of learners and readers, scholars and researchers — the hollowing out of culture.

Library cuts in Boston are matched by library cutbacks in Buckinghamshire, where this blogger lives and works. And the hollowing out of culture and community is plain to see in both places. When Roosevelt spoke of taxes as the price paid for civilisation he knew exactly what he was talking about. Where are the current day statesman who can make the same case for the 21st Century?

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