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Sep 3, 2015

Taxes, Taxpayers, and Public Money’s Moral Matrix

Refraining from discussing “taxpayers” and “my tax dollars” does nothing to resolve deep disputes that leave some public expenditures in serious moral question.

Recent debates over Planned Parenthood’s involvement in procuring and selling body parts from aborted fetuses have inspired all sorts of proclamations from concerned citizens. Some taxpayers’ indignation at the potential implication of tax dollars in abortion provision has been renewed. Others are proud and happy to fund Planned Parenthood, citing its noble work for women’s health. 

While this particular topic has been refreshed for now, the form of these claims is nothing new. The moral status of public money is a complicated one. By what political alchemy does, can, or should tax dollars be washed of the interests of those who controlled them last? What is the proper attitude of a citizen towards the duly authorized expenditures of public funds?

Earlier this year, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig argued that calling people “taxpayers” constitutes an objectionable ideological move designed to encourage them to view each public expenditure in terms of what they (each, personally) find acceptable. On the contrary, public money is public, so one must stop thinking of any portion of it as meaningfully tied to oneself. The citizens who justly contribute less to the tax dollar pot (by progressive taxation, not by evasion) do not thereby forfeit their rights to participate in a semi-deliberative, aspirationally inclusive quasi-democracy such as ours. (One hopes Bruenig, a pro-life liberal, thinks this is true of funds used to send women to abortion providers just as in the more innocuous welfare cases).

The predictable libertarian line is, of course, to point out that it is simply accurate that some people are net taxpayers and that others aren’t (perhaps denying, however disingenuously, that this observation has no particular political motivation). Since the government doesn’t have its own money, it must confiscate or print some, and these origins are important especially from the libertarian point of view. Moreover, if you think taxing and spending is a necessarily negative sum game, you would expect people to attune themselves to their resulting losses. But this reply is too literal, and doesn’t go quite far enough in acknowledging (and validating) the complicated ways in which even public money ties, binds, and repels. 

Some uses of “taxpayer” are clearly ideological, in that they encourage citizens to think of themselves as makers and others as takers, with (often predictable) resulting moral-political sentiments. Some people pay in more than they can reasonably be perceived to get out. Indeed, that is the very point of redistributive taxation (for better or for worse). But insisting that taxpayers then forget this, on top of having forked over their money, adds insult to possible injury.

Notice that it’s not just conservatives objecting to specific uses of “their” tax dollars, or objecting to whom is receiving the benefits of them on net (e.g. “welfare queens”). It’s easy to find examples of liberals making similar objections, particularly to defense-related spending. Or in the Planned Parenthood case, liberals – being glad their tax dollars are put to this purpose – will commonly express approval for the funding. They, too, apparently think that extrapolating out from one’s own market income wallet to ultimate public spending is at very least morally permissible, maybe even morally weighty. 

This is not a “gotcha” – I think it’s fine and good that people across the ideological spectrum identify with their tax dollars. In general, money helps to add distance between us and those with whom we might care to transact, so long as we can do so at arm’s length (at least at first). Money powers transactions between strangers, people who in all likelihood vehemently disagree on some things. 

But there are some limits here. Transferring money to someone falls along a spectrum from the random shopkeeper (a case where you don’t much care what he does with your money next) and, at the other end, things like loans and gifts given to family with a certain purpose (house down payment, college tuition) in mind. Perhaps the default assumption in the marketplace is that the recipient will not do something egregiously wrong with what-was-formerly-your-money (thereby making you an enabler), and that if you learn that’s the case then you seriously consider pulling out. 

Of course, people don’t agree on what constitutes egregious wrongness, and this disagreement is exactly the source of high-profile disputes over “my tax dollars” (abortion, war, the undeserving poor). The tax dollars aren’t freely offered, either, so you are from a moral perspective being forced to enable something wrong by your lights. 

Refraining from discussing “taxpayers” and “my tax dollars” as such, then, will do nothing at all resolve the deep moral disputes that leave some public expenditures in serious moral question. This non-solution asks us, as ostensible participants in a deliberative democracy, to accept a shallow positivistic understanding of the justification of tax spending in every case. It is psychologically unrealistic. It short-circuits the appropriate feedback loop required to make liberal wide reflective equilibrium work. 

“Your” tax dollars aren’t yours, but you remain causally connected to them in a way that becomes salient, as it should, in fraught moral cases. The messy status of public money helps to maintain a two-way connection between citizens and the governments, and to preserve the responsibility the former feel for the latter. Ideal theorists, who think public money is thereby magically made clean of its origins, attempt to sever that connection at their own peril.