Do Taxes ‘Hurt’? Is Government Bad?

As I read my Monday morning (Oct. 1, 2007) San Jose Mercury News a headline jumped out at me: “Cigarette tax would hurt poor“.
How often do we hear that taxes “hurt” or “punish” one group or another? How often do we hear that taxes are a “burden on the economy” or “cost jobs?” How many politicians talk about providing “tax relief?”
George Lakoff, of the Rockridge Institute writes that this language “frames” taxes as an affliction:

For there to be “relief” there must be an affliction, an afflicted party harmed by the affliction, and a reliever who takes the affliction away and is therefore a hero. And if anybody tries to stop the reliever, he’s a villain wanting the suffering to go on. Add “tax” to the mix and you have a metaphorical frame: Taxation as an affliction, the taxpayer as the afflicted party, the president as the hero, and [people who believe in government] as the villains.

This anti-tax rhetoric results from an anti-government worldview that is pushed by conservatives, in which they portray our government as some kind of enemy of the public. Ronald Reagan is famous for sayings like, “Government is the problem, not the solution” and, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ ” The constant use of negative framing like this to describe government and taxes leads regular people to think about their government as a negative, malevolent force. We have been hearing this drumbeat for so long, and with so little pushback to counter these ideas, that many people just accept that this is the way it is.
But are taxes really an affliction? Is government really a negative force in society? Let’s step back from the affliction frame for a second and take a different look at the idea of taxes and government.

Let’s start with the basics. Who is the government? The Constitutions of the United States of America and of the state of California both begin with the words, “We the people.” So “we, the people” are the government. The government is US — you and me! When you think about it this way, it makes the things Ronald Reagan said sound contradictory. How can we, the people be the problem? How can it be scary that we, the people are here to help each other?
What does our government do? Again, back to the basics, our government builds the roads, hires teachers and police and firefighters and judges, and, in the bigger picture, sets up the rules for the society we want. We build roads and the roads allow us to get to the schools, businesses, stores and parks where we work, shop, study and relax. And because we have our schools and jobs and stores and parks, and the rules for the society we want, in theory we are able to live a little better every year. When the government is functioning as it should, these rules enable all of us to pursue happiness and our businesses and people to prosper. And these rules are decided by us through our elections.
In other words, WE decide what our government does and how our money is used to our mutual benefit.
So how can government and taxes be bad if the government is us? Looking at things this way, doesn’t this all mean that taxes are like a savings and investment account where we get back so much more than we put in? And, building on that, since we use the taxes to our mutual benefit aren’t we all better off if there are more taxes rather than less? Doesn’t that just make us all stronger?
What about all the “government bureaucracy” that conservatives complain about? Well, looked at in this new way, the government’s money is our money, so of course we want to be able to account for how it is being spent. That means it has to be tracked every step of the way. We want to know that it is spent honestly and efficiently, and the necessary transparency and the oversight that accomplishes this does require people and procedures.
Conservatives also say government is “inefficient.” But anyone who has worked in a corporation has experienced the alternative. In many corporations a few people at the top decide how things are going to be, and they pass commands down from the top. Anyone who disagrees has the choice to do what they are told or leave. It’s great for the people who are at the very top – but sometimes not so great if you are not.
The processes involved when lots of people get together to decide how to utilize our shared resources can get somewhat cumbersome. Anyone who has ever been in a homeowners association understands this. But in our system of government everyone is involved in making the decisions. This can take longer than it can take in a business, but it also lets all of us have a say.
This is how democracy works. This is the price we pay for letting everyone have a say in how our society is set up. Together we mutually decide how best to build and manage our society, and this can take some time and effort. We decide the best ways to spend our money and we want systems in place so that we know that the money is being used properly.
So we all have a choice. If we want firefighters and police to be there for us when we need them, and if we want good schools and teachers so all of our children have an opportunity to succeed, then we have to pay the necessary taxes to pay for those things. And if we want to continue to have a say in how our government works and what it does, we have to put up with the decision-making process. It’s a part of growing up and taking on the responsibilities.
Or, we go a different way. We can hand those choices and responsibilities over to the “private sector” – the corporations – and let others decide how things are going to be done and how our money and common resources will be used. Thinking about Enron and Katrina and Iraq and our current privatized health care system, I wonder how we can expect that will work out for us?