Among the right wing believers, a recurring theme is that Government is evil or at least unnecessary for a well-functioning society. Usually this perspective is reflected by the libertarian notion that taxes are a form of theft from all of us hard-working oppressed masses, which is an idea that has a definite instinctive emotional appeal. Certainly we can all think of some form of government service or program that we don’t think benefits us directly and therefore is a waste of our tax money. But once we move past this emotional response, how reasonable is this belief in practical terms?
Recently I saw a post on a social media site expressing the opinion that the government has little effect on this person’s daily life. Perhaps the intent of the person was to point out that continually fretting about the political drama in Washington DC was not productive or relevant to most of our routine activities. The implication was probably that we should trust the future to God to avoid stressing ourselves beyond reason about national and global events. For personal serenity, this is probably a good idea.
This comment got me thinking about the underlying assumptions of the posted message which is that government does not often affect or benefit us directly. I realized that this was a common perspective among the lower and middle working classes in the USA, as illustrated by the 2016 elections. Many frustrated voters chose as President a narcissistic psychopath billionaire (considered a political outsider) over a candidate perceived as part of the political and economic establishment or elite class. At the date of this article, which is three weeks into the term of the new President, the people’s elected choice has been widely considered a naive leader or bumbling fool who is an embarrassment to our country in the eyes of much of the world. My personal opinion is that this election result is the expression of many years of frustration about the unfairness of our political and economic systems that causes tremendous stress in the lives of many citizens. This frustration was whipped into outrage against government, social and political institutions by media pundits and political candidates who expected to take advantage of this emotional response for their own economic and political gains. But are the targeted messages from those social agitators who promote these ideas based on fact or are they part of an agenda to deceive and manipulate public opinion?
Let’s think about the idea that government is inherently bad and intentionally infringes on the rights of the average citizen through forced taxation without proportional benefit in return. The counterpoint to this idea is that payment of some minimal amount of taxes is fundamentally part of the price of living in a civilized society. The anarchist proposal of no taxes (and therefore no government) would apparently require us to devolve to the social structures of the native peoples of America, Australia, Africa and other remote places. Many of these native peoples were hunters and foragers or agrarians who lived very simple, though often difficult lives, directly relying upon the resources of nature. Most people in modern society don’t seem to be that eager to return to that level of primitive lifestyle. (Although the direction we are headed, that may be where we end up once again.) This example might be overly dramatic to make a point, but extreme libertarians (some of whom are now in the White House) appear to be pushing society that direction.
However, public sentiments that fuel widespread opposition to “excessive” taxation (which allegedly only funds the expansion of”big government”) seem to be based on the sense of unfairness of taxation policies rather than a complete rejection of all services provided by government at all levels.
In this article, there is not time or space enough to look into all the financial and political forces that led to the financial burden on the majority of working class Americans. Instead, I want to explore the idea from the social media comments that government programs and services do not affect or benefit the majority of residents in this country. For a broader view, let’s start with a list of things in our daily lives that are supported or funded through government actions, programs and services. How many of these would most of us be willing to give up right now?
- Transportation systems and infrastructure, including highways, roads, bridges, traffic control, railroads, aviation systems and global shipping
- All forms of computing and telecommunications that are based on semiconductor technology and operating systemssuch as personal computers, cell phones, gaming systems, the Internet, systems forindustrial automation, and all of the electronic gadgets we use daily
- Agriculture and food safety programs, such as USDA, local extension offices, standards for safety of processing methods and ingredients of most foods we eat
- Military and defense industries that (purport) to keep our nation safe from external and internal threats
- Law enforcement and judicial systems to contain and mitigate harmful actions by the few toward fellow citizens
- Materials and process research that result in convenience items such as microwave ovens and more efficient appliances that can save time and money
- Medical research that result in cures and containment of diseases and genetically transmitted medical conditions, including many of our pharmaceutical products, medical devices for diagnostics and treatment, and vaccine programs that have nearly eliminated many childhood diseases
- Research and development of new and alternative energy systems, such as oil and gas extraction, solar energy, wind energy, geothermal energy, tidal and wave energy, nuclear energy, along with programs for building efficiency technology and many others
- Establishment and regulation of utilities for delivery of electrical power, gas, clean water and sanitary sewer systems
- Establishment of public education systems for elementary and secondary schools, colleges, universities, libraries, museums and many other forms of information infrastructure
- Monetary systems that enable exchange of goods and services without having to rely on direct barter for each transaction, such as the banking systems (paper and electronic funds), investment instruments, and credit transactions
- Infrastructure that enables individual or corporate ownership of real estate and other forms of private property
- Rules and regulations that allow businesses, charities and churches to operate with minimized risk of fraud and abuse by these institutions against the public good
- Pretty much anything that enabled the development of the structures and institutions of modern society was at some point established or directed by some governance agency
So, if we really want to entirely renounce the influence or the control of all forms of governance, then we should be willing to stand by our value systems and give up the benefits of all these costs to society. Essentially that would mean returning to a way of life that is still found in the native tribes in the far corners of Africa jungles, South American rain forests, tribal groups led by warlords in Afghanistan, or the remote regions of China or Tibet. At minimum we would need to mimic the lifestyle of the Amish or other groups that reject the benefits of modern society. On the other had, the destruction of our earth’s environment and unrestrained exploitation of natural resources may force us back to living like those primitive societies within the next 30 to 50 years anyway, so we should probably get a head start by living like that right now!
An entire article would be needed to explore another aspect of this fallacy of thinking, which is that government taxation is fundamentally different than any other economic transaction. But here are some things to think about to keep this concern in context.
A libertarian perspective might be that we have no direct influence over how our tax money is spent, so taxation is therefore a form of financial theft or extortion. Yet most of those who hold this position don’t seem to express that concern when they buy any other consumer product from private businesses. There is really no fundamental difference when we buy the most recent and most expensive smart phone from Apple and paying taxes. Both are exchanges of money for products or services in which we have limited or no influence over how the money is used once given to the other party. We know that many electronic and consumer products from China and other locations in the world are produced by workers who are essentially slave laborers. So it is quite reasonable to assume that Apple, along with most other electronics manufacturers, use exploited labor to produce their products. While we might object to this on some ethical or moral grounds, we cannot prevent this except by not buying any of these products.
Another assertion by radical free marketeers is that we buy products as private citizens as a free exchange of money for goods or services and we have a choice about what we buy or how much we choose to spend. They claim that by contrast, we pay taxes at a set rate based on income (minus exemptions and deductions), which is not an individual choice and therefore is extorted by the government. (These beliefs are expressed more eloquently by proponents, but this seems to be the essential argument.)
Think about whether this matches our experiences as consumers. Personally, I don’t own Apple devices, but I doubt that the average person is in a position to negotiate the price of the latest and greatest products purchased at the local Apple retailer as an expression of a truly free and open market. The prices for in-demand items in many industries are typically fixed or inflated by sellers (which should stimulate competition according to free market theory) so in many cases consumers actually have very limited say in the amount they pay. Does this interaction really reflect free market forces? Realistically, many industries are now so consolidated by corporate buyouts or business failures that the few remaining companies essentially set markets conditions and pricing for their products. In the financial industries in particular, many consumer protections are apt to be gutted or repealed by the current administration, which further reduces the choices we are allowed to make within the “free” market.
Government regulations were put in place to prevent this anti-competitive environment in which a private cartel is able to set predatory pricing at will. The recent rollback of government regulations (in response to corporate lobbying) now allows the private sector to financially “extort” the buying public through market manipulation. (Ironically, some right wing groups claim the government is extorting the public through taxation while lobbying for private groups to do the extorting as a routine business practice.) In many cases the levy of taxes on specific industries was originally intended for enforcement of regulations that protect the public interest. It should not take much thought to discern that opposition to government spending (regulation) is a means to thwart enforcement of anti-predatory business practices. When we vote for officials who aim to eliminate these government protections, we open ourselves as private citizens to exploitation by private interests.
Maybe I’m starting to ramble, but the point is that we should be aware of the consequences of the ideas we hear repeated in some right wing and conservative circles. We might be inclined to agree with half-truths, hidden messages and falsehoods based on an emotional appeal without thinking about who is advancing these ideas and considering what their true motivations might be. These messages may not be in our long-term best interest at all, even if they sound good as a sound bite. Listener beware!