Your Tax Dollars at Work

Americans often frame their opposition to government actions in terms of “your/my/our tax money is paying for this.” This practice is misleading and carries philosophical baggage its users may not be aware of. Here are some examples:

-“Many taxpayers will no doubt agree that the wasteful spending uncovered in this report is not what they had in mind when they filed their taxes in April. Few will find that they represent the best our government has to offer.” – Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), Wastebook 2010: A Guide to Some of the Most Wasteful Government Spending of 2010.

-“It’s bad enough to force American families to fund abortion services here in the United States, but how can we ask them to send their hard-earned dollars abroad for abortions overseas?” – Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Marjorie Dannenfelser, “Planned Parenthood wants more tax dollars for abortions”

-“$8.5 MM in Taxpayer Dollars Will Store Homeless’ Furniture” – Headline at Gothamist.com

There are several problems with this rhetorical practice. First, there is the equation of “government money” with “taxpayer dollars.” When people talk about taxpayer dollars, it is primarily revenue from income taxes and payroll taxes they have in mind; if they’re taking issue with the actions of a local or state government, they may also be referring to sales tax revenue(1) or property tax revenue.

These are not, however, the only sources of government money. If a multimillionaire has ever died and left you an inheritance that was covered by the estate tax, I suppose you could also speak about estate tax revenue as “your money.” But if you don’t happen to come from tremendous amounts of money and you see a project funded out of estate tax revenue, you have no right to complain, or so the logic of “taxpayer money” would seem to suggest. Likewise it’s implausible to suggest that corporate tax revenue is really anyone’s money. And when it comes to revenue from tariffs, for example, or visa application fees, it seems the only ones with any right to complain about the U.S. government’s use of money are foreign citizens.

This is not an entirely academic point. Until 1861, none of the federal government’s funding came from income taxes. In the early days of the American republic, government money came primarily from tariffs levied on foreign goods entering the country. Would anyone argue that antebellum Americans had less of a right to direct their government’s spending than we do today?

Perhaps some might argue that when the government began taxing its citizens’ income, it undertook an extra responsibility to spend that money well or in accordance with the will of those citizens. I don’t find that argument at all persuasive. The government should be responsible with its budget and responsive to its citizens regardless of the sources of its revenue.

What, in fact, do people mean when they say that the government is spending your money? Perhaps they mean it’s money that came out of your pocket, or would have entered your pocket had taxes been lower—that is to say, money that you earned. But in that case, if you ever shop at CVS, CVS is also spending your hard-earned money on things like paying its employees and buying products to sell. The mere fact that money at one point belonged to you does not mean that it is eternally “your” money.

But there is another sense in which the government is spending our money in a way CVS isn’t. The government is not a foreign country, or another person, or a corporation, like CVS. It is not something alien to us. The government is a tool we employ to act collectively when individual action is not possible, sufficient, or desirable. When we give the government money, we still control that money, because the government’s actions are an expression of our collective will. Likewise, when the government gets money from other sources, like tariffs, we control that too. The government’s money is always our money, for reasons that have nothing to do with taxes.

But employing the rhetoric of “taxpayer dollars” to attempt to control our government’s actions is not only misleading. It’s also harmful. This formula calls out to our identity specifically as “taxpayers,” casting our relationship with the state as a financial one(2). We fund the government, so it should do as we say. Taken to its logical conclusion, this argument would seem to say that those who pay more should have more of a say, while those who make no net contribution to the government’s budget should have no say at all. As for those who receive more from the government than they pay in, I don’t know what would happen to them; perhaps the government would assume part or full ownership of poor people who make use of its services.

“Taxpayer,” of course, is not the only role one can assume in relation to one’s government. The alternative I’d suggest would be “citizen,” casting one’s relationship with the state as civic rather than financial. Every citizen is equally a citizen and has the right to cast one vote. If my government is doing something I don’t like, I can vote and advocate against it, regardless of where the state got the money to pay for what it’s doing.

In fact, even those who use the rhetoric of “taxpayer dollars” are often being disingenuous about their primary concern, even if unintentionally so. For example, Bruce Shepard, president of Western Washington University, often gets letters taking him or his school to task for funding, allowing, or promoting some activity. On his blog, Shepard has written about his reaction to these letters:

Finally, I get to what bothers me most in the letters I get from people upset about something that is controversial, insulting, or perceived to be errant. It is, in one form or another, in almost every communication – the assertion that, as a taxpayer, the author should not have to have their money used for the purpose to which they object.

What is our reply? (I cannot do as a university president what I once was tempted to do as an uppity assistant professor when one writer objected to my actions being a misuse of his taxes: calculating his share of my salary to be 7 cents and offering to send the pennies to him.)

There is the obvious point: once collected, it is no longer your money; as a polity and by the rules we have mutually agreed to as a requirement of citizenship, it is all of our money to be put to the public purposes that our governmental structures arrange for.

People don’t want to hear that. So, there is the other obvious point: if universities could only do that to which no taxpayer could object, then there would be nothing that we could do. At least, nothing worth doing.

Let’s imagine that Shepard, back in his uppity assistant professor days, actually wrote to a complainer and offered to refund his 7 cents, and maybe even an additional 34 cents or so to reimburse him for postage. Is there any chance at all that the complainer would have been satisfied with that bargain? Of course not. The complainer’s interest in Shepard’s government-supported teaching activities was not financial; it was political.

Shepard’s disgruntled correspondents want their government to support those things they agree with and withdraw support from those things they disagree with. They simply use the rhetoric of “taxpayer dollars” to express these desires, rather than the more honest civic language of “This is right, or wrong; we as a collectivity should support, or not support, this thing.”

I don’t know enough to say anything for sure about the age or provenance of this financial view of the citizen-state relationship. My guess is that it arose in the past half-century, and particularly in the 1980s, when the Western world began to view the state as something like a business. Regardless, we should be wary of language that does the thinking for us. Speaking of “taxpayer dollars” when we mean to express our opposition to some government action threatens to lead us down a profoundly undemocratic path.

(1) There are federal excise taxes on things like cigarettes, alcohol, and gasoline, but other than that there is no federal sales tax.

(2) Sen. Coburn’s Wastebook 2010, which I quoted from earlier, actually opens with the salutation “Dear Taxpayer.”

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.

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