Trevor Hancock: Taxes are the price we pay for civilization

Any day now, the Fraser Institute will again declare Tax Freedom Day, when, they tell us, we stop working for government and start working for ourselves; last year it was June 9.

In recent years, corporations and many governments have sought to redefine us as consumers and taxpayers, rather than as citizens. Along with that, for ideological reasons, they have sought to downplay the role of the public sector. They have done so not just by preaching cost-cutting and lowered taxes, but in many cases by belittling public servants as lazy or incompetent or both — and overpaid to boot.

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But it is not that the public sector is overpaid, but rather that the private sector is underpaid, because the ruthless search for profit above all else drives down wages — except for the top dogs, of course, who make obscene incomes in part by robbing their workers of decent incomes.

I have worked in or with the public sector for most of my life, and in my experience the public sector is no less dedicated and hardworking than the private sector — and usually practises more ethically, because they see themselves as guardians of a public trust.

Of course, nobody likes paying taxes, but then we often take for granted what our taxes pay for. More than a hundred years ago, U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” He was echoing the much older observation of the Roman senator Cicero that “taxes are the sinews of the state.”

So let’s see how a day of living without tax-funded services — our tax-freedom day — works for you.

Your day starts without water, unless you have your own well. So no bathing, teeth-cleaning — and definitely no coffee. And while you can use your toilet, you can’t flush it unless you are on a septic tank; sewers are a public service.

Time for breakfast. I hope you are not hungry, because unless you grow it yourself, you can’t walk or drive to buy food at a store or restaurant. The sidewalk and the roads are publicly funded, and of course there is no public transit. And your food might not be safe, since food inspection is another public service.

So, hungry, thirsty and dirty, it’s off to work — except you can’t walk or drive there, of course. You might be OK if you work from home, but if the kids are not being home-schooled, they are with you for the day, as there are no public schools. Even if they are in private school, they still can’t get there. And they can’t play in the park, either. Yes, that’s public, too.

Better not have a fire at home, as there is no fire service, and no police and no ambulance, either, so stay safe and try not to get robbed. And definitely don’t get sick; you can’t get to the hospital, which is also publicly funded.

We depend on public services for many of the daily activities that we take for granted. The services that taxes fund make a more civilized life possible, they enhance our well-being in many ways. And taxes have another important health-enhancing function: They help to redistribute wealth and reduce inequality. This enables people who, for a variety of reasons, need assistance and support to lead a healthier life.

So if we don’t pay enough taxes, we don’t have enough civilization. In fact, we live right next door to the poster child for the adverse effects of low taxes and inequitable distribution. On a wide variety of social indicators, the low-tax U.S. (their tax-free day in 2014 was April 21, according to the Tax Foundation) performs worse than most of its OECD partners, including Canada.

So the next time someone suggests everything would be better if we paid less taxes, turn on the tap, make some coffee, sit down and have a good think about whether that is such a good idea.

 

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

thancock@uvic.ca

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