We the People’s Taxes

By Cyberquill 11/04/20142 Comments

A very good measure of how democratic a society is is to ask about the attitude towards taxes. I mean, if you had a free functioning democratic society, April 15th, when you pay your taxes, that would be a day of celebration: Here we are, getting together, to fund the policies that we decided on. That’s great. That’s what we wanna do. [But h]ere it’s a day of mourning. It’s not a government of, by, and for the people. You know, that itself is a sign of the serious decline of the functioning of the democratic system.”

Compelling and attractive as the above argument may sound at first blush, it appears to rest on a fanciful notion of “we” and “the people” as a monolithic entity, whose individual constituents not only agree on a set of common goals, but also, and more pertinently, on the most effective strategies for attaining these goals—strategies which, typically, involve the allotment of tax funds to some causes and projects but not, or less so, to others.

Even assuming that Americans, by and large, want the same things—peace and security, personal liberty, opportunities to pursue happiness in abundance, a functional infrastructure, a solid economy, a first-rate health care system, scientific progress that knocks the pants off the rest of the globe, trains that run on time, the ready and plentiful availability of all goods and services that have come to define the western standard of living, record-low unemployment, record-low poverty, a record-low crime rate, an pristine environment, etc.—it seems rather far-fetched to expect as an ineluctable component of a “free functioning democratic society” as envisioned by Mr Chomsky a universal mind meld when it comes to tax money allocation such that April 15th would run July 4th off the road in terms of being a day of national celebration.

Democracy means government by the demos, the people. More precisely, it means government by the majority, i.e., by at least 51% of the people on any given issue. It follows that on every democratically arrived-at decision, up to 49% of the people will find themselves at loggerheads with “the people,” often vehemently so, and feel left out of the decision-making process, which may put a bit of a damper on their desire to cut loose on tax day.

Take the problem of using taxes to combat poverty, for instance. There are two schools of thought here. One school believes that government entitlements reduce poverty by extending a helping hand to the needy. The other school believes that government entitlements invariably result in a reliance on these entitlements by the recipients, thereby undermining individual initiative and fostering a culture of learned helplessness.

In short, these two camps will hardly to see eye to eye on how much tax money should go to food stamps versus, say, a national missile defense shield, which the latter camp probably feels would enhance national security and the former that it would have the opposite effect by inducing other countries to develop ever more sophisticated missiles to outsmart any shield they may encounter en route to their targets.

Or consider the question of whether taxes ought to be used to fund contraceptives and so-called “abortifacients” like the morning-after pill. Or pick any divisive issue you like.

So no matter how “functionally democratic” a society, how on earth are opposing factions ever going to close ranks on how much of their taxes should be spent on what such that, come April 15th, the American people will be in collective party spirits for having funded the policies that “we” decided on—who’s “we”?

In 1787, “We the People” referred to white propertied males. Even on this narrow reading of the term, “the people” were marred by internal dissension from the first, splitting into Federalists and Anti-Federalists, the founding-era analogue to modern Democrats and Republicans and their perennial bickering over priorities and the most effective polices to achieve common objectives like national security.

In Federalist #10, James Madison, concerned about the erosion of minority rights, warned of too much democracy, branding it the “tyranny of the majority.” Granted, the minority that figured most prominently in Mr Madison’s mind may have been the one of which he was a member, namely the wealthy. In any case, his magnum opus, The U.S. Constitution, slapped some strategic constraints on the tyranny of the majority by establishing a framework of ground rules that were to reside beyond the reach of the mob’s vicissitudes and could only be overturned or modified via the intentionally laborious process of passing constitutional amendments, requiring the rare phenomenon of super-majority concurrence.

Noam Chomsky speaks of a “decline in the democratic system”—as compared to when exactly? Has anyone ever heard of a period in U.S. history (or in world history, for that matter) when de-facto unison reigned and no more than a negligible percentage of the population felt disenfranchised for one reason or another?

Apparently, Mr Chomsky believes that establishing a “free functioning democratic society” (however he defines it—most likely by abandoning all democracy-limiting mechanisms like written constitutions or special interests) would somehow lead to popular near-unanimity on all issues, thus plunging the nation into unified celebration on April 15th.

Sounds like a non-sequitur if ever there was one.


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  • Richard

    We do not live in democracies, of course, but under elective dictatorships. Stability is a direct function of the degree we are willing to accept rule by those with whom we disagree.

    This is why, paradoxically, an enlightened ruler gives due weight to the opinions and interests of minorities.

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

      Personally, I tend to agree with Chomsky in that we essentially live under plutocracies. The accumulation of ever more wealth in the hands of a few can’t be healthy for society in the long run. The power of inordinate wealth, of course, includes the power to install so-called “leaders” (such as by lobbying and campaign funding) that will be most unlikely to challenge that power in meaningful ways.

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