Paul's Internet Landfill/ demons/ Resenting My Taxes

Resenting My Taxes

I calculated my taxes this weekend, and it looks as if I owe the Government of Canada about $2000, payable by the end of April. I find this shocking, but not surprising -- the payroll department at my university must not have taken my scholarship money into account when calculating income tax deductions for me each month.

Fortunately, I have the money on hand, so paying the debt won't be a problem. Knowing that doesn't make me feel much better, however; a parade of negative emotions has been marching in my head. I feel shocked, because I did not account for such a big expense. I feel scared thinking of the consequences I might have faced if I had not had the money on hand. Most dangerously, though, I feel resentment; I don't relish the idea of going to the bank and writing out a $2000 money order and sending it to a large faceless government. A shrill little voice in my head is screaming that this money is mine, that I never agreed to purchase anything from the government, and thus it's completely unfair that I should be expected to fork over two grand of my hard-earned cash.

In a way, I am glad that mix-up happened. I am glad that the shrill little voice is screaming in my head, because I have never heard that voice before. I think that voice screams in a lot of people's heads; it is the voice that prompts us to complain about welfare bums and support the Canadian Alliance. It is an important voice, although I don't like it very much; it is the voice that taught me how much easier it is to be a left-winger when you are poor than when you are rich.

You see, as a complacent little left-winger, I am contractually obligated to support government taxation. I am supposed to take the view that taxes aren't supposed to be penalties working-people pay for the crime of making a living; rather, taxes pool funds to pay for all those projects individuals would be reluctant to fund. Taxes help create a more tolerable society; without them, our lives become more susceptible to heartless market forces, and weak members of society (where "weak" means "poor") suffer and die. As a good little left-winger, watching the poor suffer and die pains my bleeding little heart, so I happily pay taxes, and I tell all my friends to pay their taxes as well.

Unfortunately, it can be really hard to see the connection between tax money and the betterment of society, especially when our tax money is at stake. Furthermore, I suspect that lots of people who pay high taxes feel as if they don't as much out of the tax system as they put in. I don't pay high taxes, but even my shrill little voice wonders why my tax dollars should support people on welfare, people who are too lazy to work for themselves. Never mind the fact that life on welfare is not glamourous, that many of these people have a lot of other issues to deal with before they are ready to hold down jobs, and that in some sense we replace mental institutions and real care with welfare. I see my bank account shrinking, and their bank accounts growing, and my shrill voice shrieks "Injustice!" Similarly, I look at governments spending money to further the exploitation of wilderness lands for logging and mining, and my little voice shrieks "Insane!" I look at governments increasing military spending with my tax dollars, and the little voice shrieks "Stupidity!"

Of course, my little voice is a hypocrite. For one thing, I benefit immensely from the tax system. If it wasn't for taxes, I wouldn't be complaining about the taxes on my scholarship because I wouldn't have a scholarship -- and given the quality of research I have produced, my funding is one of the most scandalous wastes of taxpayer money I can think of.

I benefit from taxes in many other ways as well. My education is partially subsidized by the government; without taxpayer dollars, I probably would not have been able to afford university. Each weekend, I volunteer my time fixing up used bikes for an organization called Recycle Cycles, an immensely useful organization that distributes affordable bicycles to the community and offers tools and technical help so that people can learn to fix their own bikes. Recycle Cycles would have a hard time existing without taxpayer money: the main co-ordinator's salary is paid through government grants, and rent for our building is funded by an organization that receives much of its money through the provincial and federal governments. Taxes maintain the sidewalks and paths I use to walk to school every day. As I write this, I am listening to a Sonic Youth CD that I signed out of the public library -- a library that depends upon government funding to stay alive. Then, of course, there is the government-subsidized health care that allows me to go to the doctor without worrying about how I will pay for the visit. I could go on, the point should be clear -- I get far more out of the tax system than I put in, so if there is anybody in this land who should be happy to pay taxes, it's me. Furthermore, I am sure that other people's little voices would be shrieking injustice if they knew how much I benefit from their tax dollars.

I understand how my tax dollars benefit those around me. I understand how much I benefit from other people's tax dollars. Yet, I still resent forking over a juicy fat $2000 money order to pay for services I use every day. Part of this irrational view can be explained by my personal greed and selfishness; I want these services without paying for them. However, I think another important factor adds to my reluctance: paying a large sum of money all at once hurts. I think I would have felt a lot better paying my taxes if I did not have to pay so much at once. Related to this, I would have felt better if the money had never been deposited into my bank account.

In this sense, my reluctance is mostly psychological. The government would have received the same amount of money regardless of whether my taxes were deducted from my monthly pay or whether I paid a lump sum at the end of the tax season. Psychologically, however, paying a lump sum makes a big difference: once that money lands in my bank account, I think of that money as mine. Once that money is in my bank account, I assume I have the freedom to allocate that money as I please: to pay my rent, to buy food, to donate to charity, or to save up for future expenses. I do not feel as if other people -- including government bureaucrats -- have the right to take away that money unless I make the decision to give it up. In this case, however, my assumption was false: I was storing money in my bank account that belonged to the government, and the government asked me to give that money back. Because I did not realize this money was not mine to spend freely, I resented this request.

I don't mind paying taxes. I don't mind seeing my tax money fund social services, even though I don't personally agree with all the services funded. I figure that the set of social services I deem important differs radically from the sets of social services that other people prefer, and it's the government's job to balance our diverse needs. However, if I have to allocate 25% of my salary to the government, I don't want to be misled into thinking that this money is mine. I don't want that money deposited into my bank account, because that just makes me think I have more money than I do. I don't even want to be promised that extra chunk of money when I apply for a job; telling me that I will earn $30 000 per year at a given job is stupid if I will not even see $7500 of that salary. I want to know whether I will have enough money in my bank account to meet my expenses; telling me how much I will earn before tax deductions just sets up false expectations.

Yes. This is a psychological trick. When I hear that I shall be paid $30 000 per year, my employer is telling me that I will be allocated $30 000 worth of salary money for doing a particular job. The fact I will see only $22 500 of that salary is irrelevant to my employer, even though it matters a lot to me. And hearing that I will earn $22 500 per year instead of $30 000 does not change the fraction of my salary the government will get. However, I think this psychological trick is important, if only because it makes taxes seem like less of a punishment.

At the same time, I don't think I want my taxes to be completely invisible. I would like the option of finding out how much money I am contributing to the tax system. For this reason, I think that showing payroll deductions on monthly tax slips are a good idea. However, I would prefer to think of these deductions as a bonus rather than a deduction: in addition to my net salary, my employer is generously donating money to the government to pay for services that benefit me and my community. This would be a very different way of looking at taxes than our current system; instead of thinking of taxes as money being taken away from us, we would see taxes as money added to a community paycheque. In some sense, this new view would be a form of propaganda, but in another sense I think it would be a more accurate view of taxation than we have now. Although many libertarians would disagree with me, I suspect our lives would cost a lot more to live if we did not have these pooled funds to pay for social services and infrastructure. We would have to pay for these services one way or another, and I think it is likely that paying for health insurance and road repair and school funding and higher tuitions and increased policing (to handle the increased crime caused by increased poverty) would end up costing taxpayers more than putting money together and using it for the common good. Yes, bureaucratic wastage is an issue, but so is inflated profit earned by oligarchies of big business. I don't think there is any question that our taxes benefit us, but many people today have a hard time seeing that connection. They talk about "Tax Freedom Day" -- the day of the year when you stop working for the government and start working for yourself, as if you are not doing yourself any good by paying money to the government. In that sense, I think that viewing taxation as a benefit rather than a punishment would lead to a healthier perspective of what taxes are and why we pay them.

Do I think this new view will ever become popular? Probably not. When looking for work, I intend to distinguish my gross pay from my net pay so that I can figure out whether I can afford my personal expenses on my net pay. However, I don't think that employers will be anxious to advertise lower salaries when looking for employees, and I don't think they would be able to even if they wanted to, because some people work multiple jobs, and this changes take-home pay.

Furthermore, I don't think everybody shares my views on the benefits of taxation. I am not even sure whether I share my views. I do believe that co-operation and pooled resources can accomplish a lot more than individuals competing against each other. I also believe that some things -- such as infrastructure, environmental protection, and maybe even social services and health care -- are issues that are too large for individuals to handle alone. Taxation provides a central pool of resources to make big purchases, and since we all co-operate to pay our taxes, the government can allocate our tax money to handle big issues. However, I am not convinced that centralization is always good; sometimes small-scale co-operation is more effective than a large centralized system deciding what is best for the people. Lots of people think that communism failed because it was too centralized, and it squashed individual voice and initiative. I think this criticism has merit; all too often government departments ignore public opinions and public input, and all too often this leads to poor decisions and wastage. In this sense, maybe reducing our taxes would be a good idea; instead of depending upon the government to handle all of our public policy decisions, citizens would have to assume more responsibility for handling issues that affect them -- and they would get the additional funds to do so in the form of lower taxes. Governments would still have to handle the really big issues, I think, but citizen groups could play a far more active role in determining the best way to pool their resources and pay for community projects.

This is an anarchist view of taxation; it claims that people have enough good sense to handle their own community management, and therefore we don't need a centralized government to make our policy decisions for us. I like this view, because it empowers people. Instead of letting technocrats decide what is best for us, we decide what is best for ourselves, and we take on the responsibility of carrying out changes that benefit our communities. Unfortunately, in order to work we would not only have to change our attitudes towards taxation; we would have to change our attitudes towards our take-home pay, and towards the roles we play in our communities. Our government taxes might be reduced, but our take-home pay would not really increase; instead of giving governments money to pay for our social services, we would have to allocate money out of our bank accounts for the benefit of the community. Based upon my reluctance to pay the government the taxes I owe, I think that too many people would resent giving up their take-home pay for community projects. Unfortunately, getting people to give up money in their bank accounts would not be enough; citizen involvement also requires a lot of time -- to sit on boards, to attend public-input meetings, to conduct research. It is not easy to be an informed member of society, and based upon voter apathy in this country, I am not so sure that people would be willing to give up their personal time and their personal funds to carry out public service work. It is easier to let the government deduct part of our pay each month, and accept the wastage and inefficiency of large centralized decision-making.

Regardless of whether we stick to the current centralized system of government taxation or whether we move to the anarchist ideal of self-management, it's clear that providing social services and infrastructure is still going to cost money, and ultimately citizens will be responsible for part of that cost. One way or another, we will have to pay taxes, or we will lose social services that benefit all of us. That's why I dislike the attitude that taxes are nothing more than punishment, and that is why my resentment towards the government for taxing me bothers so much. If a good little left-winger like me can't understand the value of my taxes and pay them accordingly, how can I expect others to deal with their shrill little voices responsibly?