When tax sends a powerful message of official values

Taxation is an essential part of our support for the public sphere. What is taxed and what is exempted are powerful message of official values and goals. A tax system should fund those services we value as universal entitlements rather than private purchases.

Timothy Hawkes’ proposal for penalising more affluent parents using the public school system because they are not paying for private education is bizarre and seriously problematic. But it was treated by the media as a serious proposal and supported by a union. This approach opens other possibilities for revenue raising such as a penalty tax on those using public transport and not using a car, or maybe a tax on more affluent walkers, or fee for service charging for reporting burglaries to the police rather than using private security services.

What about other absurd examples of further pressures to privatising the public sector which will further pit citizen against citizen.  How about an income category card that would allow the bus or train system to assess how much you pay for your trip to work.

The failure to react to the absurdity of the proposal of penalising those who use public rather than private services indicates a major shift in how we see ourselves as citizens or customers. When we share public spaces and resources, it is easier to see our communality with others and reinforces our identity as citizens. Local schools have been an important part of providing a safe space for children, staff and parents to share experiences and relationships. Like other public services, this sharing, good and bad, is important to how we see ourselves in relation to others. Good public hospitals and schools are still part of what makes us a civil society.

The wimpy coverage of the Hawkes’ proposal indicates how far our public debate has forgotten the basic principles of the modern Western democratic state that developed in the first three quarters of the past century. From the 19th century on there was a gradual recognition that pooling risk and resources improved standards of living that were not part of earlier societies. Taxation rose to pay for public health to clean up water, air and disease, public education to make more competent workers and citizens, and democratic institutions that created the nation state. The result was political stability, social equity and increasing intergroup equity and cohesion.

When these resources failed to develop or were undermined by private market failures such as the Depression, extremism such as Russian communism or fascist Germany took over. The nation state’s capacities to unite the diverse sectors of its communities depends on the visibility of communalities. Shared schooling, accessible health care and good public services justify the institution and the reason we pay taxes to support it.

The rise of neoliberal market models redefined universal public service as a residual model for those who could not afford to pay. The logical but damaging outcomes is to make the state fix market failure by subsidising the costs of buying the private and penalising those who could afford but didn’t use the private sphere. This increases the potential for further reducing “inferior” public service. We lose trust in our governance system and tend to be politically more volatile, looking for the best financial deal rather than the common good.  We create a culture of consumerist self interest.