The ‘Myth’ of Taxpayers’ Rights

In April, US Representative Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) had a tough town hall.   Upset about the Trump legislative agenda, constituents called Mullin to task as a public employee.  His unscripted response was to complain about their questions and to argue that the idea that taxpayers pay his salary was ‘bullcrap’.   He went on: “I pay for myself…I pay enough taxes where before [sic] I ever got there, and continue to for [sic] my company and pay my own salary.” Mullin further claimed that his job as a public servant was an ‘honor’ and that his wealth and position as a business leader gave him a special freedom and independence from government.  This independence from financial ties, in turn, bolsters his credibility as a critic of government encroachment.

Is Public Service a Contract?

His argument opens an intriguing window on the way that public service (and, by extension, government) is being recast.   While there is a striking & stark contradiction between claiming to both represent taxpayers and to be free from accountability to them, Mullin kind of had a point—–Do ‘taxpayers’ (as a group, and aside from ‘citizens’) actually have rights? Is public service a kind of contract of service, in which representatives agree to provide a necessary ‘good’ in exchange for a fee (salary paid by taxpayers)?

I want to say no, that is not the essence of public service. Public service should not be reduced to little more than a commercial exchange or contractual relationship, it is also a relationship of trust.  Logically, then, to some extent I (gulp) agree with Mullin that it is a service and a privilege.  This is not to say that there is no contractual dimension to public service, however.  Ever since Rousseau wrote about the Social Contract in the 18th century, governments and citizens have expected a relationship of mutual accountability.  For Rousseau, however, the social contract was a metaphor for the larger relationship of mutual obligation that government rested upon; in particular the obligation of the state to its citizens. Therefore, the relationship between the public and public servants does have a contractual dimension. So, if it is not only a contract, what else is it?

The Origins of Taxpayers’ Rights

Prior to the widespread institution of income taxes as a primary revenue source for modern administrative governments, most governments gained the vast majority of their revenue from taxes on trade.  The famous Boston Tea Party protest was against the unfair tax rate on a commodity (tea) and the legitimacy of the Crown’s right to tax commerce without accountability to traders.   Eventually, of  ourse, taxes became imposed on other dimensions of economic activity, include labour and capital gains.  What drove governments to reach beyond trade to enrich their treasuries was war. War required governments to raise funds to field military forces at a competitive level to other states.  War also brought conscription, wherein the sons of the poor were required to invest their lives in the security of the state.  Conscription without representation was just as untenable as taxation without representation, however. With new demands from the state, the state also had to provide new opportunities for returning veterans, which in turn necessitated higher taxes to provide housing, care, education and a safety net.  In truth, the extension of the tax base to all income earners relieved business of the bulk of the tax burden, and business benefited from the security provided by the state.  Security provided great opportunity for economies to grow and globalize.

Paying taxes does and should produce a set of obligations on the part of the government to respect the public interest

Asking the people to expend blood and treasure on war meant that there was an implied responsibility on the part of the state to provide social services to the people.  Taxpayers could expect that public servants would expend public treasure for the public good, not for the interests of business alone.  Underlying the arrangement was a semi-contractual kind of language: taxpayers could expect to be able to exercise their democratic rights to ‘check’ irresponsible governments; and governments could expect citizens to be devoted to the support of the state in war, and in peace.

Clearly, this calculus has changed.  The reasons for this are numerous, not least that conscription has been eliminated and war is fought very differently, but it is still undeniably the case today that paying taxes does and should produce a set of obligations on the part of the government to respect the public interest.

Taxpayer Rights Versus Taxpayer Interests

Paying taxes does not only create a contractual relationship, it also binds taxpayers to their community, giving them a stake in a common future and ensuring thier engagement in public life.

This is not, however, the same as saying that taxpayers per se have rights, over and above their interests as members of the public.   A ‘right’ implies a claim to greater respect and recognition over and above the interests of other groups.  A ‘right’ is a trump card that all other interests, and government, must respect.   Taxpayers as a group are entitled to a voice and to express their interest as a group.  An ‘interest’ implies a competition in the marketplace of ideas in which any one group’s desires may reasonably and fairly be considered over and above others, within the framework of laws that otherwise encourage respect for fundamental rights. Taxpayers, like retirees, patients, business owners, students, workers, and other groups, have interests, but not rights. Ethnic minorities, religious minorities, the disabled, the press, and the public, on the other hand, have rights that may override taxpayers’ interests, and that may necessitate that government prioritize these considerations over others.

The Recasting of Government in the New Agenda

What the new agenda overlooks is that paying taxes does not only create a contractual relationship, it also binds taxpayers to their community, giving them a stake in a common future and ensuring thier engagement in public life. This is what makes Mullin’s position so problematic. Mullin is not making his defence from the standpoint of a citizen with a common stake in the public good, nor even as a servant (despite his calming words about ‘service’ and ‘honor’). His defence is one of a taxpayer, and more particularly, as a business owner.  Ultimately the whole conversation ends up being an argument between taxpayers, not citizens.  Arguing that taxpayers have unique contractual rights essentially gives them permission to disengage from the social contract as a whole, especially those parts of it that don’t directly serve their interests.  In turn, and by extension, governments are then relieved of their obligations to the public, including the provision of security and welfare.  While taxpayers have the democratic right to defend their interests, they do not have the right to disrupt the social contract to this degree. When The Fraser Institute and the Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation argue that taxpayers either work for themselves or for the govenment, they feed in to the idea that taxpayers have special rights.

When citizens at the Town Hall demand that governments should respect taxpayers, then decision makers should listen. However, taxpayers should not have a louder voice than citizens.  Taxpayers ‘rights’ should not be extended to the degree they disrupt the larger social contract.  If they do, then the democracy is at risk of eliminating itself by undermining the contract of service and trust, and, incidentally, by bankrupting the state.  There is some evidence that the US has already begun to do this.  Since the language of taxpayers’ rights essentially marginalizes any public interest from the conversation, it is incapable of constructing a new social contract.  The language of taxpayers’ rights then becomes essentially self-destructive, since taxpayers will end up undermining, in the end, their own claims to the rights and benefits of citizenship.

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