Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has been on a tear lately. Her near-constant attacking of libertarians has brought her “vertically-integrated digital media company” a good deal of traffic. For this I say: congrats! Mrs. Bruenig, you’re as enterprising as the capitalist robber barrons you detest!
On that note, I take issue with a topic in one of Bruenig’s recent diatribes. My pal J. Arthur Bloom has so far done a terrific job of peeling off the inanity of Mrs. Bruenig’s fact-empty pieces. This new one, however, takes the cake. The New Republic writer stumbles into the complicated world of ontology and linguistics, and ends up stuck in a puddle of muddy verbiage.
Bruenig hones in on what she sees as the sloppy and irresponsible use of the word “taxpayer.” Apparently the pols in DC are too crass with the word, and are offending the delicate sensibilities of the language police. Bruenig writes that while calling people”‘taxpayers” may appear neutral, “it tends to carry more argumentative weight than it’s typically credited with.” It appears she has discovered a mendacious scheme behind Republicans’ frequent use of “taxpayer.” In other words, Bruenig has stumbled upon a vast right-wing conspiracy. Stop the presses! We have a hot take folks!
To Bruenig, tax dollars are not the same as the currency someone puts in their bank account. Tax dollars are public dollars, not private. Thus, in her words, public revenue is “a pool of public money to be used for the good of the public, not 300 million pools of private money each to be used to serve private individuals’ interests.” It follows that treating tax money like privately-owned money is fallacious. They are two different things; two “forms” as Aristotle would say.
This dichotomy makes for different natures. If tax dollars are not the same as regular dollars, then they should be treated differently. As a Christian socialist, Bruenig wants greater public expenditures on the poor. That’s a laudable goal in itself, despite the fact government is inherently inefficient and venal. The abolition of the word “taxpayer” would, according to Bruenig, encourage us to think less selfishly and with the greater good in mind. And that means more welfare payments. Of course. Because socialism.
I’ll grant that she is correct about one thing: tax dollars and private dollars are different. One is the product of thievery; the other is the product of hard work and voluntary interaction. Money spent by a government differs from money spent by the individual. There are often different goals involved. But does that difference really mean politicians should stop using the word “taxpayer?”
The answer is simple to anyone who values precision in language: of course not. Taxpayer means someone who pays taxes. That’s it. There is no pernicious ploy behind its use. Taxpayer has a specific meaning: individuals who pay taxes. And yes, some folks pay more in taxes than others. That’s a built-in function of the current tax system in the U.S. Mrs. Bruenig resents this not because it’s true, but because it gives some people the idea that “those contributing larger shares would seem to be due greater consideration, like shareholders in a company.”
Let’s consider that proposition for a moment. Just because you pay more than someone else for something, do you deserve more attention? Is that not a natural urge? Can you really blame someone for feeling like they don’t get everything they pay for?
Dividing citizens between taxpayers and tax consumers is not novel to the American vocabulary. Political theorist and statesman John C. Calhoun detailed the difference over a century ago. Even in the mid-19th century, Calhoun recognized the inevitable tension created between those who predominantly pay taxes and those who benefit from said payment. Calhoun, despite being a proponent of slavery, was an adept observer of political dynamics and how the forces of envy complicate the delicate art of governance. In his A Disquisition on Government, Calhoun wrote,
“Taxation may, indeed, be made equal, regarded separately from disbursement. Even this is no easy task; but the two united cannot possibly be made equal. Such being the case, it must necessarily follow, that some one portion of the community must pay in taxes more than it receives back in disbursements; while another receives in disbursements more than it pays in taxes.”
Taxation doesn’t have to be a negative sum game, but in practice it ends up that way. That’s the problem with the intertemporal changing of property. Not everything can occur simultaneously. Thus, some will pay more and some will receive more in taxes than others. Is it really that bad then to separate taxpayers from tax consumers?
Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney got himself in hot water months before Election Day for bringing up the fact that 47% of Americans receive more in tax benefits than they pay in income taxes. This, he reasoned, is why he would lose the votes of those accustomed to receiving dole payments. The would-be president was excoriated in the media for the comment, even though he was 100% correct. People who receive tax payments in the form of welfare are more predisposed to vote for politicians who will keep the check a-coming. It’s just common sense.
I see no issue with calling individuals “taxpayers.” There may be public benefits to tax dollars spent on education, food stamps, courts, police, and what have you. But the fact of the matter is that some people pick up the tab for others. They are called taxpayers. Public policy can either cater more to their demands, or completely ignore them. The fundamental reality of how government finances work should play a part in the debate.
I suspect Mrs. Bruenig has an ulterior motive behind her plea to end the use of the word “taxpayer.” If I had to put money on it, I’d put a hefty bet on Bruenig favors censorship because it distorts thinking on taxes. Without reference to taxpayers, those who actually foot the bill for government programs would be less prone to speak out when their money is mismanaged – which is often the case with government. If this is correct, Bruenig is positively Orwellian in her goal. And that makes sense for someone who aims to socialize more and more aspects of American life.
I’m not a politician, but I have one response to Bruenig’s request to remove “taxpayer” from the current lexicon: don’t tell me what to do! Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to be the topic of her next take-down of libertarianism.