Taxes are Good
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The Disconnect Between Taxes and Programs
One of the reasons that some Americans do not have this more positive view of taxes is that they seem to ignore the basic connection between taxes and the beneficial programs they fund. What else could explain the fact that polls repeatedly reveal that many people support tax cuts while at the same time they support increasing government spending in many areas? Naturally, anti-government and anti-tax advocates like to encourage this sense of disconnection between taxes and programs. That is why, for example, when conservatives talk about tax cuts, they rarely talk about the programs cuts that must necessarily follow. They focus on how money will be returned to tax payers, not how money will be taken away from needed government programs. To listen to them, tax cuts are all gains and no pain.
This sense of disconnection is also helped along greatly by the political illusion that was discussed in the article “A Day in Your Life:” that the benefits of many government programs are elusive and are often easy to ignore or take for granted. Unlike marketplace transactions, where what we get for our money is immediate and tangible – what we get for our taxes is often delayed and less tangible. When we draw clean water from our taps, we rarely stop to make the connection between this and the taxes we pay to ensure the purity of this vital resource. Also, many of the benefits that come to us from our taxes take the form of things that do not happen to us – like not getting mugged or not breathing dirty air – and these we hardly notice at all.
Anti-government conservatives and libertarians are very good at taking advantage of the fact that while what government does for us often seems elusive, the taxes we pay to government are all too real to most people. Consider, for example, the strategy employed by Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was running for governor of California. In his campaign, he complained loudly about how overtaxed Californians were: “From the time they get up in the morning and flush the toilet, they are taxed. When they go get a coffee, they are taxed. When they get in their car, they are taxed. When they go to the gas station they are taxed. When they go to lunch, they are taxed. This goes on all day long. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax. Tax.”3 This is true – and it helped Schwarzenegger get elected – but it is a misleading half-truth. He leaves out the rest of the story: that we are also constantly benefiting from government programs throughout our day. He deliberately ignores the connection between taxes and the programs they fund. We may be taxed when we flush the toilet, but what we get is the efficient and easy way to dispose of our waste in a manner that does not poison our water or spread disease. We may be taxed when we buy a cup of coffee, but our taxes help pay for inspections of coffee houses and restaurants that ensure that their food and drinks are fit for human consumption. We may be taxed when we pay for gas, but what we get is the interstate highway system that many of us so frequently use. So the reality is really this: Tax. Benefit. Tax. Benefit. Tax. Benefit. Tax. Benefit. While government may be constantly taking from us in the form of taxes, it is also constantly giving back to us in the form of the various programs that improve our daily lives.
Government bashers like Schwarzenegger can only succeed in making taxes seem onerous and unfair by completely ignoring what we get in return. This tactic may be bogus, but it has been a raging success. Conservatives have been winning this ideological fight in the United States in part because they have convinced most Americans to see themselves primarily as “taxpayers” not “beneficiaries.” In their rhetoric, they make sure to constantly refer to people as “taxpayers.” This is another attempt to frame the issue in a way that encourages us to think of government as bad – as a burden on us. “Taxpayers” is not a neutral term at all, but one loaded with powerful political meaning. It unconsciously reinforces a view of citizen/government relations being one-way – from our wallets to its coffers. A recent poll revealed that 28% of Americans agreed with the statement: “I don’t like paying taxes because the government doesn’t do anything for people like me.”4 And as long as people continue to see themselves only as taxpayers and not beneficiaries, as long as they ignore the connection between our taxes and what they get back from government, they will be ripe for the picking by those who want to weaken government.