Elizabeth Bruenig, writing for The New Republic, argues that we all should stop using the word “taxpayer.” Unfortunately, it is difficult to extract a coherent argument anywhere in her article.
She begins by criticizing House Republicans’ budget for FY 2016, stating that it is
…an ideological document meant to advance a particular set of beliefs about how government should function, and toward what end.
This is a strange observation in that it is impossible for a government budget to be value-free. Even if it contained no narrative and only consisted of spreadsheets and figures, it still assumes a proper role of government. Particularly nefarious to Mrs. Bruenig, however, is that it uses the word “taxpayer” or a permutation of this term “24 times, as often as the word ‘people’.”
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.
It’s hard to see how she reaches this conclusion, even when considering the full context of her article. As far as I can tell, she dislikes the fact that the narrower category of “taxpayer” implies that there is a productive class and a parasitic class. Acknowledging reality seems to be problematic, for some reason.
Her primary contention appears to be that taxpayers have no right whatsoever to decide how or on what that money should be spent. She scoffs at the idea that government “expenditures that do not correspond to an individual’s will are some kind of affront,” and argues that,
If money owed in taxes is imagined…to belong to the taxpayer, then programs operating off of public revenue do seem to have some obligation to correspond to their funders’ consent, and serving the interests of others does seem unfair. But these are all obfuscations brought on by the term.
Why? Because taxes are spent on “the public good,” that’s why. In what can only be called hypocrisy or arrogance on the part of Mrs. Bruenig, she, while decrying several types of spending cuts in the House Republican budget, also criticizes their “disturbing gestures toward more military spending.” While she is right to call such gestures disturbing, on what basis is she able to make any statement on the propriety of public spending, if taxpayers themselves, the ones being fleeced to pay for all these wonderful programs, have no right? She continues:
The same laws that determine that money deposited into a person’s bank account belongs to that person also determine that taxes owed on that deposit do not.
In what sense are they “the same laws”? Because they come from the same infallible government? If that’s the case, couldn’t we also say, “The same laws that determine that murder is unlawful also determine that someone who sells marijuana twice should go to prison for more than twice as long as someone who hijacks an airplane? I really don’t know what point she’s trying to make with this statement.
Public revenue is just that: a pool of public money to be used for the good of the public, not 300 million pools of private money each to be used to serve private individuals’ interests. What is in the interest of the public may involve expenditures that can’t be filed in a pay-in-cash-out formula, as the “taxpayer” terminology would suggest. Kids, for example, usually don’t pay taxes whatsoever, but spending on children is a necessary social function. Our roads and public utilities, too, are available to anyone inside our borders, not because they have been purchased, but because strong infrastructure provides for the common good.
In other words, we can’t do a perfect accounting of benefits received from tax expenditures, therefore “taxpayer” as a category doesn’t exist. Just because you can’t easily determine the distribution of the benefits, how does that imply that we can’t tell who the taxpayers are? She then mixes in a public goods “argument” (which is very difficult to call an argument, since calling something a “necessary social function” or “providing for the common good” does not readily imply that the state should be in full control of serving these functions, the will of the taxpayer be damned). She feels no need to justify the idea that the state shall be able to take whatever resources it wishes from you for whatever purposes it (or Mrs. Bruenig) deems fit, and imprison (or kill) you should you wish to say, “No, I’d rather not.”
But this view [that taxpayers should have some say in where their money goes] 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.
Here we see Mrs. Bruenig’s Orwellian tendencies come to full fruition. In her mind, “consent of the governed” has nothing to do with what the governed consent to, and prefers not to tell us where a person’s rights come from. (Indeed, it’s not even clear what she considers to be the mistaken view of the source of a person’s rights.) Instead, she asserts the “personhood confers certain obligations and dues.” But what obligations and dues? And why does “personhood” confer them? This is left unanswered.
Mrs. Bruenig says that the slogan “power to the taxpayers!” just doesn’t have the same ring to it as “power to the people!” (though a more accurate slogan for her own view may as well be “power to the state!”) and that US Constitution doesn’t begin “We the taxpayers” because it “would have been an odd construction for a nation born from a revolt against British taxation.” I imagine that if Mrs. Bruenig had been alive during the American secession from Great Britain, by what she has written, she would have been staunchly in favor of British taxation and against the American colonists, saying, “What? You think you have a grievance in being forced to pay for your own oppression? Shut up and pay your taxes!”
Finally, she writes “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.” Does she believe that eliminating the word to describe the people that are robbed by the IRS carries no “political water”? This is truly one of the most incoherent things I have ever read.