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The greater good

Our views on taxation say much about the values that underpin society

By David Wilson

We just sent off the final instalment of our  cottage property taxes. Dropping the cheque into the mail seems a bit like flushing money down the drain. We get almost nothing for our tax dollars: our road doesn’t get plowed and the local dump is being phased out. Fire protection? Just stand back and watch the place burn.

But the township is absolutely right to send us a tax bill. Our taxes support the greater local good, which seems like a fair trade-off for the privilege of owning property in the jurisdiction.

According to a growing chorus of politicians here and elsewhere, we who pay taxes should think of ourselves as victims. They brandish “taxpayer” like a bloodied cross, appropriating the language of persecution to sway voters to the idea that taxation is some kind of transgression. And it seems to be working. The Tea Party’s anti-tax gospel was a decisive force in the U.S. midterm elections in 2010. In Toronto, Rob Ford painted a lurid picture of a city under tax siege and got himself elected mayor. In last spring’s federal election, the Conservatives promised no new taxes and marched to a majority. The current election campaign in Ontario is shaping up to be a referendum on the provincial government’s tax record.

Crusading against taxes may hit the right notes in the polling booth; living with the consequences is another matter. The Republican Party’s political debts to the tax-hating Tea Party led the U.S. government to the brink of default this summer. In Toronto, Rob Ford told voters he could lower taxes without cutting services. A little more than six months into his first term, Ford was dishing out major service cuts and public sector downsizing.

I fear that serious discussions about taxation are being drowned out by partisan clamour. The particulars of taxation may defy mortal comprehension, but the broad ethical dimensions of the issue are accessible to anyone who cares to consider them. For starters, what do our views on taxation say about the values that underpin our society? Another question especially for churches to ponder: is it right for places of worship not to pay taxes while nearly everyone else does?

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canada is the 11th most heavily taxed country of its 34 member nations. Not a statistic to take lightly. Nor is another OECD finding: three of the world’s most heavily taxed nations — Denmark (4th), Finland (7th) and the Netherlands (3rd) — are the three happiest nations on the planet. It seems that many of the things taxes buy — education, health care, unemployment insurance, old age pensions, long-term care — promote the peace of mind that is essential to being happy. Something to think about next time the crusaders sound their trumpets.

• Is pacifism possible in the post-9/11 world? In this month’s cover story, Kevin Spurgaitis examines how a long-held Christian doctrine faces challenges in an era of terrorism and genocide.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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