These days, it's more likely to hear politicians and the media refer to us as "taxpayers" rather than "citizens." Such political discourse assumes that every voter is asking "what's in it for me?" instead of "what's in it for everyone?" As citizens, we have rights and responsibilities to each other. Paying our taxes is just one part of citizenship.
Taxes are a way to pool our resources and develop common infrastructure that can have a positive impact on us all. They build our roads and bridges, pay for our police and firefighters, offer support for raising children, provide income security and housing for people who are poor, contribute to foreign aid, and help to ensure our environment is clean and safe. All of these things are much cheaper and effective when we pay for them collectively. The taxes paid by previous generation benefits us today and the taxes we pay will hopefully benefit the generations of tomorrow.
"Taxes for the Common Good," a recent report from Citizens for Public Justice, summarizes up-to-date information on the costs and opportunities afforded by various federal tax policy options. It highlights the positive role taxes play in a democratic society.
Lower taxes are often promoted as the solution to all social problems, but rarely do we hear the risks. We don't hear about the good of programs paid for with tax dollars. We often forget the fact that we are the ones who benefit from the services and infrastructure that tax dollars provide. For more than two-thirds of Canadians, the benefit received from public services is equal to more than half their incomes. Corporations, who have seen record profits while their tax rates have fallen to record lows, benefit from our common infrastructure, too. They benefit from our stable economy and government, our roads and bridges, and from workers who have been educated in our schools. Yet, it seems that few are asking what is the real cost of tax cuts or who pays the price.
Recognizing the good that taxes can do is not to suggest that we be naive about their misuse. Taxes should not be used to line the pockets of the political elite or merely benefit the wealthy. Nor should they burden the poor. The use of our common "purse" must be transparent and there must be open and honest debate about its use. This requires accountability; active citizenship includes ensuring that government is doing the work it should be doing. It's time for a serious public dialogue about taxation within the context of citizenship.
You know what they say: nothing is certain but death and taxes. But perhaps the negative assumptions behind this common saying deserve some second thought. Instead of rolling our eyes and gritting our teeth, let's consider how our tax dollars contribute to the common good as citizens first.
A version of this article was originally published in ChristianWeek.
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