Screw the taxpayer

by Chris Bertram on November 5, 2013

The term “the taxpayer” is playing an increasing role in British public debate, often introduced, seemingly, as an apparently neutral synonym for “the public” whilst really being no such thing. The term is endlessly repeated by BBC interviewers asking “tough questions” of politicians and civil servants and it seems as if none of them either notices or is willing to question the ideological assumptions and tacit theory of legitimacy that lie behind the term.

Point 1. In a state that at least markets itself as a democracy, the principle ought to be that the state is answerable to the electorate. Pretty much everyone in the electorate pays taxes (VAT at least) but the key idea is not that the state is answerable to them because they pay for it, but rather because it is a non-voluntary entity that claims authority over them and subjects them to its laws. Whether they are “net contributors” to the public purse is neither here nor there. People who pay in more than they receive – such as the mythical “taxpayer” – have no special claim to extra influence.

Point 2. The “taxpayer” idea is being used in very harmful ways to deprive many ordinary people of their basic human rights, including the right to marry and form a family with a partner of their choice. (In the UK, the government asked an advisory committee to calculate the income levels at which families of various sizes would not be net beneficiaries of the tax-and-transfer regime in order to rule that people who failed to meet that income threshold would not have the right to have their foreign spouse live with them in the country.)

Point 3. The “taxpayer” idea claims that only those who pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits make “a contribution”. But that’s nonsense. Many poorly paid people make a contribution through work that they ought to be paid more for. The fact that they are underpaid and exploited shouldn’t be held against the many many people who, for example, keep our public and health services running. Many people who are not “economically active” make a contribution to society as parents, carers or in many other ways. And those unable to make a contribution because of age or disability: they have the same right to a say as anybody else.

The “taxpayer” trope is a pernicious ideological assault on the very idea of equal citizenship. It is elitist and exclusionary and promulgates a false theory of the state according to which government belongs to the propertied. No it doesn’t: it belongs to its citizens, rich and poor, old and young.

{ 152 comments }

1

Anderson 11.05.13 at 2:07 pm

UK becoming more like US, it sounds like. Enjoy your Tory government!

2

Pete 11.05.13 at 2:21 pm

[Government] belongs to its citizens, rich and poor, old and young.

To what extent does it owe obligations to non-citizens, though? That’s the real question on matters of immigration.

I agree that “taxpayer” is used to make the state vanish from the equation; if people were saying “public money” instead, then they might remember such things as “public ownership” and “public interest” which are desparately being avoided. Instead they pretend that it’s suburban middle-class respectable people paying directly for things they find odious, and encourage them to object.

In some ways this is like the modern trend of considering how a company treats its suppliers to be the height of ethics; “ethical shopping” consists of monitoring how a factory manager thousands of miles away treats his workers, and considering one’s own transactions accordingly. Likewise the “ethical” taxpayer considers whether the organisation he or she pays tax to is supporting someone’s lifestyle to which he or she objects.

Back to immigration: out of “popular”, “legal” and “workable”, it seems we can have at most one and a half of those properties.

3

MPAVictoria 11.05.13 at 2:24 pm

“The fact that they are underpaid and exploited shouldn’t be held against the many many people who, for example, keep our public and health services running”

Bravo!

4

Matt 11.05.13 at 2:33 pm

This is very good and important, though there’s potential tension between the view of the state as a non-voluntary entity that claims authority over them and subjects them to its laws. and point 2, as immigrants present the exception to the claim that the state is non-voluntary. I try to work through these ideas in a paper from a few years ago,
Immigration, Association, and the Family

(not sure if that link will work. Can I joint the others asking for “preview”?)

Essentially every country that has both any substantial immigration and even modest social welfare programs has “public charge” provisions that would-be immigrants must meet. I’m not sure these are per se unacceptable, but, from my limited understanding, it seems that those in the UK are now set much, much too high. At the least, when fundamental rights are at issue (like the right to marry and live with one’s spouse and minor children) such burdens should be low and be able to be met in several ways.

5

Chris Bertram 11.05.13 at 2:35 pm

Yes you are quite right that non-citizens complicate the picture here. I’ll be doing an immigration post just as soon as I’ve finished Oscar Martinez’s (excellent) The Beast.

6

ajay 11.05.13 at 2:56 pm

People who pay in more than they receive – such as the mythical “taxpayer”

Is this actually the commonly-understood meaning of “taxpayer”? I always took it to mean “a person who pays taxes”. Which is all of us – at least, all of us adults. Have you got an example of someone using “taxpayers” to mean “net contributors only”?

7

ajay 11.05.13 at 2:59 pm

There’s also a bit of wobble in this post regarding whether the government should be answerable to its citizens or its electorate. (Not the same thing at all.) And there are a lot of people in Britain who are neither citizens nor members of the electorate, but still have to pay taxes and are still subject to British laws…

8

Salem 11.05.13 at 3:01 pm

This post is fundamentally misguided, because the language in British public debate is emphatically not net taxpayers. No-one is saying that net contributors to the public purse “own” the government. Instead, the point is that just as the government distributes resources, they have to come from somewhere – i.e. taxes – and so the government should be careful not to take resources away from others if it’s not going to put them to better use. There’s an opportunity cost to government spending.

But I’ll go further, and actually defend the “net taxpayer” viewpoint. In my view, the government should be particularly sensitive to those who it harms by its actions. The government is answerable to the electorate as a whole, true, but – you can call it “sufficient justification” or whatever other term of art you like – we must require it to be fair to everyone, or at least all citizens. Of course the government should try and minimise the burden on net taxpayers – although naturally, there are many other groups that it harms, and it needs to minimise the burdens on those other groups too.

9

Chris Bertram 11.05.13 at 3:03 pm

Yes ajay, I’m trying to make rebut an ideological meme, not cross all my “i’s and dot all my “t’s, but do carry on ….

10

Rob 11.05.13 at 3:16 pm

I’m with ajay in that I’ve always assumed that “the taxpayer” is meant to stand for all of us, and if anything is a more inclusive label than, say, “the citizenry” or even “the people”. Everyone who actually lives here pays at least some tax, and there’s no real popular conception of “net taxpayers” which “the taxpayer” could be taken as shorthand for. For instance, I have no real idea if I’m a net taxpayer or not – I’m probably in the income bracket where I might be, and as a single person with no children and no current business with the NHS then I probably am a net taxpayer, but I can’t say that with any confidence. I wouldn’t feel any more or less of a “taxpayer” if I found out that I happened to fall on a particular side of the net tax payment division and I don’t get the impression that many other people care about that distinction either.

I think “the taxpayer” tends to be invoked when we want the discussion of government spending to focus on efficiency. We all have a common interest in a well-run government that can provide us with a high level of services with a minimum of taxation or borrowing, and to the extent that there is a continuum between well-run and efficient governments, and chaotically run and wasteful ones, we would prefer to have something closer to the former. If the government is wasting money in some sense (say, on those £6bn aircraft carriers with no aircraft, or Lord Adonis’ new train set) then we’re either going to have to accept lower-quality services, less redistribution, higher borrowing, or higher taxation, and it would be preferable if all of those things could be avoided by not wasting the money in the first place. You might object and say that improving efficiency is not possible, and that the claim that it is possible is merely being used by those who would prefer to pay less tax, but a similar interest in efficiency is held by those who want more services or more redistribution, and the question of efficiency is (for the most part) orthogonal to the question of what the overall level of taxation, redistribution and services should be. There’s really no reason why “the taxpayer” as someone who seeks value for money has to be seen as a proxy for the wealthy or those who pay the most tax – you could use the term in that way, and I could imagine a right-wing think tank trying to popularise that usage, but I don’t think that’s how most people in Britain today use it.

11

Rakesh Bhandari 11.05.13 at 3:19 pm

re 2
Non-citizens in the US pay taxes, though they are seen as net receivers. They pay sales taxes at the least; part of their rental payments are used for property taxes. Payroll taxes may well be deducted from their pay checks, though of course because they are often paid so little there is not much from which to deduct taxes. Researchers at UCLA estimated on the whole that “illegal immigrants” are net contributors to the state in part of course because their access to benefits is limited by their illegal status. So to the extent that some of “illegal immigrants” may be net receivers, it is primarily due to their wages being so low, a key factor in the revival of some industries that had been closed down, say, meat-packing in Iowa. It’s an old book now, but it’s a real contribution to public enlightenment–Aviva Chomsky’s “They Take Our Jobs and Other Myths about Immigration”. Title not exact, but something like that.

12

JW Mason 11.05.13 at 3:35 pm

This is not really a new usage, is it? Property qualifications for the franchise are not such ancient history, and they were explicitly justified in terms like those Chris uses here. The idea that government should be accountable to those who pay for it has deep roots, it’s not something Chris just made up.

I’ve always assumed that “the taxpayer” is meant to stand for all of us, and if anything is a more inclusive label than, say, “the citizenry” or even “the people”. Everyone who actually lives here pays at least some tax

Would you say the same thing if we substituted “property owner” for “taxpayer”? After all, everyone owns some property.

13

matt 11.05.13 at 3:40 pm

Right on. This has driven me up the wall for years in the US. See also coverage of budget isssues under the title “Your Money.”

There’s an analogous piece of ideology I see a lot around the military-dense area I live in: “thank you for our freedom, soldiers!” or “home of the free, thanks to the brave.”

14

ZM 11.05.13 at 3:40 pm

ajay @6

I think it is at implied by the idea of alarm clock Britain, no?

“”Now more than ever, politicians have to be clear who they are standing up for,” [Clegg] writes. “Be in no doubt, I am clear about who that is.”

Who? Ethnic minorities? The poor? The disabled? The original lineup of Gerry and the Pacemakers? Beekeepers? Milkmen? Necrophiles? Yeomen?

No. They can all piss off. Because Cleggsy Bear has someone else in mind. But despite claiming to be “clear about who that is”, it’s a group he defines in the vaguest, most frustrating terms possible – almost as if he doesn’t really know what the hell he’s going on about.

He’s on the side of “Alarm Clock Britain”, apparently. Yeah. You know: Alarm Clock Britain. Stop staring blankly at me. Alarm Clock Britain! It’s everywhere!”

Charlie Brooker

15

Glen Tomkins 11.05.13 at 3:45 pm

I think we’re beyond the point, at least here in the US, at which all you have to do is point out that the Right wants to turn the clock back to, say, in this case, property qualifications for voting, and expect that the unmasking itself will discredit them. Much that many of us imagined was part of our culture’s commonly accepted shared achievement in overcoming the folly and superstition of the past, was only so in our imaginations. Fifteen years ago, who would have imagined that the US would be reintroducing judicial torture within the next decade?

Specifically, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of our states in the US, TX and FL most likely, soon go for an explicit property requirement — most likely home ownership — for the franchise. At that point, it isn’t going to be particularly helpful to merely point out that we’ve been there and done that in what only some of us think of as a benighted past, and stopped doing it because we started respecting universal human rights.

Part of the problem, part of why I think our side imagines that all it has to do is point out that these ideas from the Right are actually returns to barbarism, is that we imagine that the frame we put on these matters, that they are violations of progressive ideas of human rights, is universally how any reasonable and decent person views the matter. But if judicial torture actually worked, if it actually were effective at catching criminals (terrorist or otherwise) and thus preventing crime, we almost certainly would not have stopped using it. Our society is not really very idealistic. We stopped because it both doesn’t work, and it creates a huge potential for abuse by those who control its use — quite aside from any humanitarian objections.

Not that we should concede any principles, and stop talking at all about the human rights dimension of the idea of limiting the franchise. But we can’t afford the luxury of only arguing from principle. We’re not going to turn back the atavists unless we can convince people that aristocracy has been tried, and it didn’t work. Convincing arguments about what works and what doesn’t work have a much wider appeal than arguments from first principles that we only imagine are universally, or even widely, held.

16

Matt 11.05.13 at 3:45 pm

Is this actually the commonly-understood meaning of “taxpayer”? I always took it to mean “a person who pays taxes”. Which is all of us – at least, all of us adults. Have you got an example of someone using “taxpayers” to mean “net contributors only”?

I am blissfully unaware of public discourse on this matter in the UK, but this sort of thing isn’t at all unusual in the US- think of the Wallstreet Journal’s “lucky duckies” who “pay no taxes” but use government resources in various ways or Mitt Romney’s “47%” who are moochers. Both cases take “taxpayers” to be “federal income tax”, and ignore the many taxes paid by those who pay little or no federal income taxes (state taxes, payroll taxes, sales taxes, various fees, etc.) But, as Chris notes, even beyond that, those few people who might actually pay no taxes at all are typically among the very worst off, and this explains why they pay no taxes- too disabled to work, etc. So, at least this sort of rhetoric is pretty common in the US. From the sound of things, it’s spreading to the UK too.

17

Rob 11.05.13 at 3:55 pm

JW Mason @12:

Would you say the same thing if we substituted “property owner” for “taxpayer”? After all, everyone owns some property.

No. In common British English usage, a “property owner” would be someone who owns a house, and not everyone owns a house.

18

kootcoot 11.05.13 at 3:57 pm

“To what extent does it owe obligations to non-citizens, though? That’s the real question on matters of immigration”

As a resident of B.C., I have concerns about the Alturdans that pay taxes to Alturda their entire working life and then retire here and suck our healthcare system dry.

19

W R Peterson 11.05.13 at 3:58 pm

In some cases the word chosen for ‘the whole’ helps highlight the topic under discussion.

‘Taxpayer’ highlights that the topic is government spending.
‘Electorate’ highlights political aspects.
‘Name-of-nationality’ fits better when the topic is international affairs.
For environmental discussions one might better use something like ‘the people.’

20

Chris Bertram 11.05.13 at 4:13 pm

Some right-wingers have actually broached the idea of linking the franchise to paying income tax, see, for example:

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/finance/ianmcowie/100010127/a-tax-based-alternative-to-the-alternative-vote/

But the subject of the post isn’t about people who hold that view, but rather with the more insidious view that “net contributors” have some special claim on the government’s attention. Those who doubt that such a view is out there should take a look at the UK government’s question to the Migration Advisory Committee or, alternatively, watch a typical interview conducted by Kirsty Wark.

21

Sandwichman 11.05.13 at 4:21 pm

“Taxpayer” is the euphemism for “rentier.” So how’s that euthanasia thing working out? A bit too gradual and prolonged?

22

SamChevre 11.05.13 at 4:33 pm

the key idea is not that the state is answerable to them because they pay for it

Well, the idea that the state is answerable to those who pay for it is pretty fundamental in US (and British) discourse. “Taxation without Representation is Tyranny”, and all that.

23

rm 11.05.13 at 4:44 pm

Re 11: Since the rebuttal of ideological memes is what this is all about, since when did it become de rigeur to put scare quotes around the term illegal immigrants? Since I’ve been an immigrant/permanent resident of the US for 50 years, I feel as though somehow my legal status is losing all meaning. I do, by the way, agree that those who enter a country illegally but do work and raise their families there are making a contribution that very often goes unrecognised and unappreciated. I also–to return to the original point–agree that the way taxpaying is being peddled as a substitute for citizenship is detrimental to democracy and to politics in general. The effort to get us to think of ourselves as consumers before all else is directed to the same end, it seems to me, of getting us to hand over the direction of our lives in all their aspects to the filthy rich.

Re 12, 17: While I’m definitely on Colonel Rainsborough’s side when he argued that “the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he,” the spirit of Henry Ireton surely lives on and relentlessly keeps trying to get everyone to accept that “No person hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom . . . that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom.”

24

Philip Conway 11.05.13 at 4:44 pm

I agree with your analysis of the meme, Chris. It’s certainly true that the abstract ‘taxpayer’ is being used in such a way as to transform the government into nothing more than a provider of services (and when it becomes seen in this way the fact that we *have* to pay taxes starts to seem oppressive and arbitrary).

However, I think there’s more to it. There is an argument that says that paying tax is a key component of the social contract. There are those who argue that one of the best things that could happen for governance in states in Africa, for example, would be to get more people paying taxes. That’s for two reasons: first, people would start demanding things from their government; second, the more dependent the government was on the productivity of its people the more responsive it would be to their economic well being. This analysis is, I think, particularly apposite in those countries afflicted by the ‘resource curse’ where the political classes can get filthy rich with scant regard to the general population.

Okay, so we’re in a different situation here in the UK. That dialectic is well established and ‘the taxpayer’ has become something that is actually destroying the reciprocal process by transforming it into an economic rather than a political relation. However, it does make me wonder whether ‘the taxpayer’ is a pernicious thing per se. If it isn’t then perhaps the proper response might be to reclaim it rather than dismiss it. Of course the Taxpayers’ Alliance is obnoxious but then there’s also the Tax Justice Network, which is doing wonderful work on UK and international tax politics.

25

Layman 11.05.13 at 4:50 pm

@ajay
@rob

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims. … These are people who pay no income tax. … and so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” – Mitt Romney

For my money, that makes the equation of ‘taxpayer’ and ‘contributor’ perfectly clear, and contrasts ‘taxpayers’ with ‘irresponsible moochers’.

26

praisegod barebones 11.05.13 at 4:53 pm

Is it worth pointing out that ‘tax-payers’ include (or should include) a bunch of people who the government shouldn’t (or shouldn’t obviously) be answerable to – namely resident foreigners who have no intention of taking on the burdens of citizenship (and, presumably, non-resident foreigners who own shares in profit-making companies.)

This seems fairly salient to me: I pay a fair amount of taxes to the Turkish state, but I suspect that most Turkish citizens wouldn’t feel their government should, for that reason, be answerable to me.

27

Mao Cheng Ji 11.05.13 at 4:56 pm

This just underscores how implausible this idea is, that ‘oh well, there will be winners and losers, but don’t worry, we’ll re-distribute’. The winners feel, naturally, that what’s taken from them is their money, not some accounting correction.

28

praisegod barebones 11.05.13 at 4:57 pm

SamChevre @ 20: and yet, every state that I’m aware of taxes plenty of people who it doesn’t represent, and makes no claim to.

29

Tim Wilkinson 11.05.13 at 4:59 pm

Yes it’s deeply pernicious and is meant to refer primarily to income tax and to proportion one’s grounds for legit interest in spending decisions to one’s tax bill (I don’t think the ‘net contributor’ thing is rigidly adhered to – not at the top end anyway – it’s certainly meant to exclude the unemployed on benefits when the topic is the ‘welfare bill’, but not when it’s legal aid or the NHS or something, when it’s meant to make everyone think about the money being taken from them by men with guns interfering in the naturally-emergent barter economy etc etc. – if even the unemployed – or the working poor on benfits – think this way too, so much the better.

But yes, it’s ridiculous to suggest that since it technically refers to almost every adult, it’s synonymous with ‘the population’ or something. It singles out a particular property of persons for a good reason. Clue: do you hear ‘the taxpayer’ mentioned when the topic isn’t taxation or (more often) spending?

It’s been around since Thatcher’s time (it’s used by an interviewer in the TV adaptation of A Very British Coup, IIRC), but was somewhat downplayed under Brown as chancellor. I agree with Pete @2 generally but in particular about the deliberate extinction of the term ‘public money’ – even now, about 1/6 of govt revenue is ‘other sources’ – and it could be much more if, for example, energy production and supply, retail banking, etc etc were nationalised and a modest profit made from them (still leaving it much cheaper). The abysmal govt stats sites don’t make it very easy to find a detailed breakdown of revenues (unlike expenditure), but quite a bit of the so-called taxpayer must be firms, including foreign ones; this too could be more. This is all by way of internal criticism; but the whole ‘consumerist’ approach to the common weal is very destructive of social provision generally.

(See also, something I’ve heard quite a few times on R4; ‘the Age of Austerity!’.)

30

StevenAttewell 11.05.13 at 5:10 pm

ajay @6 – it absolutely refers to net taxpayers, as we can see from both the American and British contexts. One example that I think puts a fine point on it is the way in which anti-welfare tropes have been extended to tax credits for the working poor. In the U.K, this comes with the classic language of “chiseling.” In the U.S, we’ve seen outright attempts at redefinition, such as in 2008 when John McCain’s campaign attempted to redefine the Earned Income Tax Credit, a program directed at working poor tax payers, as welfare.

What’s common about these moves is that they are essentially a dodge, meant to distract the audience from the reality that the distribution of income is so skewed that a near-majority of the population now falls below standards that the electorate has decided shouldn’t have to pay income tax, the reality that the electorate has made that decision and generally approves of it, and the reality that the people receiving benefits are working and paying taxes and thus fall into the common rubric of the deserving poor.

SamChevre @ 20 – thankfully, it’s not the only element of discourse – at least in the U.S, ever since the Civil War Amendments, we have a conception (however challenged and blocked in reality) that citizenship is universal on a jus solis basis and that the franchise is the highest right of citizenship.

The idea that you have to pay income taxes in order to be a citizenship is a bit of a funny one – after all, there wasn’t a Federal income tax in the United States until the Civil War, and then not again until 1894 when that income tax was declared unconstitutional and then not again until 1913. But even after it was re-created, the income tax was specifically designed to target the incomes of the wealthy alone as opposed to being a universal tax granting citizenship.

The income tax didn’t become universal until WWII, and it really stopped being universal starting in the early 70s with the creation of the EITC and the beginning of wage stagnation. So really, income tax paying as a duty of citizenship is the aberration rather than the rule.

31

Tim Wilkinson 11.05.13 at 5:16 pm

Well, if your democratic ideals are based on ‘no taxation without representation’…

32

Rob 11.05.13 at 5:25 pm

Layman @21, I doubt that most British people could tell you who Mitt Romney is, much less anything about his views on tax policy. It seems to me that the American rhetoric on tax is generally more right-wing than the British, which is why I’d prefer not to import the American usage of “taxpayer”.

Tom Wilkinson @25:

the whole ‘consumerist’ approach to the common weal is very destructive of social provision generally

I’m not so sure. Most people understand that there are always limits on resources somewhere, and the idea that we should get value for our money is a sensible one. In any collective endeavour, there will be some people who can claim to have put more money in than others, but the health of the organisation as a whole is still benefited by careful use of the available resources, and there’s no particular reason why a person who pays in less than someone else should care less. In fact, to the extent that overall taxation is regressive* and falls hardest on the poorest as a percentage of their income, you could argue that the poor have just as much reason to want to see more efficiency and less tax (or greater redistribution in their favour). If you’re asking someone to give up a third of their income when they’re already quite poor, it seems hard to argue that they shouldn’t ask too many questions about how the money is being spent, no matter how small a proportion of overall government spending it happens to be.

That the poorest people still pay non-negligible (to them, if not in the grand scheme of things) amounts of tax has historically been described as a positive thing precisely because it includes them in the category of “tax payers”, and that to exclude them would be to invite disenfranchisement. I’m afraid my google-fu isn’t giving me any knockout quotes, but I recollect that Gladstone made the case for reducing rather than abolishing some indirect taxes on the basis that to exclude some people from paying any tax at all would be bad for the long-term health of society.

I suppose my point is that the perspective of the abstract “taxpayer” is an important one, in that it allows us to think about value for money, the alternative uses to which the same resources could be put to, and so on. To concede the right to call oneself a “taxpayer” to those who pay large amounts of tax is to concede a valuable rhetorical position, and I don’t understand why anyone on the left would be keen to do that. Surely it is better to reinforce the notion that taxes are universal, and nobody can claim that their particular contribution is special?

* I’ve no idea how accurate Richard Murphy’s figures are, but they don’t seem implausible to me

33

Tim Wilkinson 11.05.13 at 5:28 pm

Sorry, managed to overlook several previous refs to that.

34

GiT 11.05.13 at 5:35 pm

@20 ““Taxation without Representation is Tyranny”, and all that.”

and

@27 “Well, if your democratic ideals are based on ‘no taxation without representation’…”

“No taxation without representation” is not equivalent to “no representation without taxation”…

35

Ronan(rf) 11.05.13 at 5:35 pm

“* I’ve no idea how accurate Richard Murphy’s figures are, but they don’t seem implausible to me”

Ohh, Tim Worstall should be around soon

36

nick s 11.05.13 at 6:00 pm

The hallmark of the Coalition is its eagerness to import everything that especially pernicious about the US, even as American increasingly come to realise that those things are problematic. The makers/takers distinction is especially bad, in part because it encourages responses — for instance, “what about bailouts to bankers?” — that reinforce it.

37

Layman 11.05.13 at 6:01 pm

@Rob

“I suppose my point is that the perspective of the abstract “taxpayer” is an important one, in that it allows us to think about value for money, the alternative uses to which the same resources could be put to, and so on. To concede the right to call oneself a “taxpayer” to those who pay large amounts of tax is to concede a valuable rhetorical position, and I don’t understand why anyone on the left would be keen to do that.”

I don’t think the problem is people on the left deciding that those who pay smaller amounts of tax are not ‘taxpayers’; the problem is rather that people on the right imply, or clearly state, that those who pay larger amounts of tax have some right to greater say in government policy by virtue of their tax contribution; or that those people have greater moral force to their political arguments; or that they are more likely to be right about the proper direction of public policy. Thus the OP is right – there’s a deliberate effort to promote the notion that only some citizens have a moral right to govern, and the term ‘taxpayers’ is used by the right, and the complicit media, to lend legitimacy to that notion.

38

nick s 11.05.13 at 6:17 pm

Since I’ve been an immigrant/permanent resident of the US for 50 years, I feel as though somehow my legal status is losing all meaning.

Well, it is, but not in the way you seem to think: in American popular discourse, the antonym of “citizen” is too often “illegal immigrant”.

As for the public charge question: the US threshold is 125% of the federal poverty level for family size. (Around $19,400 for a two-person household.) In contrast, a British citizen wishing to bring a spouse to the UK who can’t demonstrate six months of salaried employment at £18,600 p.a. — which affects self-employed or freelance workers — has to have £62,500 in savings. That’s an absurdity.

39

Rob 11.05.13 at 6:28 pm

Layman @37

I don’t think the problem is people on the left deciding that those who pay smaller amounts of tax are not ‘taxpayers’; the problem is rather that people on the right imply, or clearly state, that those who pay larger amounts of tax have some right to greater say in government policy by virtue of their tax contribution;

That, in my view, is not a mainstream position in the UK. Try to imagine a state in which “taxpayer” has not yet been claimed by the right as a perspective that is only accessible to their supporters, but is in fact still used in an egalitarian sense to apply to anyone who plays a part, no matter how small, in contributing financially to collective spending. If you were in that state, would you suggest that it’s a good idea to abandon the term to one’s ideological opponents?

Thus the OP is right – there’s a deliberate effort to promote the notion that only some citizens have a moral right to govern, and the term ‘taxpayers’ is used by the right, and the complicit media, to lend legitimacy to that notion.

The OP is only right if you assume that the ‘deliberate effort to promote’ has already succeeded. In my view, it has not, and I don’t see any reason why we should allow it to. The right wants to promote all kinds of damn fool ideas and if we let them dictate who is allowed to speak on the question of value-for-money in respect of funds raised via taxation then we’d be making a stupid and entirely avoidable mistake.

40

Theophylact 11.05.13 at 6:43 pm

As a resident of the District of Columbia, I pay income taxes to both DC and the Federal Government, yet have no representation in Congress. As a Federal employee, I’m also considered a worthless drone, sucking up the taxes of Real Taxpaying People.

41

Anarcissie 11.05.13 at 6:43 pm

I looked up ‘taxpayer’ in Google. The first hits were about the mechanism of paying taxes, for example, stuff from the IRS. After that I got the ‘National Taxpayers’ Union’ which probably fills the qualifications for rightist resentment. But then I got three usages in which Walmart was attacked for paying people so badly they required assistance at ‘the taxpayers” expense, two complaints about sports stadiums being built (or not built), paid for by ‘the taxpayer’, and, after some more definitional and mechanical stuff, a complaint about the cost of keeping people in jail at ‘the taxpayer’s’ expense. I believe these usages are attempts to summon, not the makers-versus-takers concept, but the hard-working laborer and small businessman who, as the only producers of value, must support wasteful or exploitive retail management, stadium-building, prison systems, and other elite follies. Stadiums appear again not too far down the list; they seem to come in for a lot of ire.

Absent some serious sociolinguistics, I think there are several connotations of ‘taxpayer’, and not all of them are about the sheep versus the goats.

42

Trader Joe 11.05.13 at 6:44 pm

Hmmmm …seems a fairly big step from media shorthand that conflates taxpayers, citizens and net beneficiaries to actual disenfranchisement. Seems like maybe the same media just might call someone out on it if it really came to that.

In the U.S. – I voted today. Hope everyone else did too. I’m pretty sure I paid more in taxes than the guy in front of me – he looked retired so he was probably a “taker” anyway. I couldn’t tell about the woman behind me, her coat was much nicer than mine, and she had a really fancy watch. She looked rich, but its hard to be sure.

Funny thing is, they only asked me to state my name and address so they could check me off the roll. They never asked what I made or how much tax I had paid.

I received one ballot. Same as the guy in front of me. Same as the woman behind me.

Fortunately I’m still sure my vote was worth more since I chose the right candidate and I’m not sure they both did. He looked too conservative and she looked too rich. Probably better to not let them vote at all than go around ‘wasting’ their votes on the wrong candidates. Maybe they should have had to show ID.

43

godoggo 11.05.13 at 6:55 pm

OK, I just opened my ballot. 2 positions in the EL Monte School District and I don’t even live in El Monte. Pass.

44

Layman 11.05.13 at 7:11 pm

@Rob

Certainly I don’t live in the UK, but it took me about 2 minutes to find this gem.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2364521/RICHARD-LITTLEJOHN-Meet-BBCs-poster-girl-welfare-cuts.html

Complaints about the largesse of welfare programs? Check. Suggestions of irresponsibility on the part of the recipient? Check. Pointing out that ‘the taxpayers’ provide these benefits? Check. Ignoring that the recipient is, herself, a ‘taxpayer’? Check. And for added measure, wondering about the recipient’s African-ness?

Seems our Romney-ness is catching on over there…

45

John Quiggin 11.05.13 at 7:27 pm

Coming in late (still early in Oz!), but this is an important point, and could do with a co-ordinated push of some kind. I always avoid “taxpayer”. Even on the most defensible use, in cases of obvious waste in public expenditure, the loss falls on everyone in both their taxpayer role (since taxes could have been lower) and in their role as beneficiaries of public expenditure (since the money could have been spent better).

In Australia at least, the usage has been around for a very long time, and is clearly ideological
http://www.desmogblog.com/australian-taxpayers-alliance

46

Jim Bliss 11.05.13 at 8:02 pm

The term “the taxpayer” is playing an increasing role in British public debate…

And not just Britain. Here in Ireland, politicians and the political media are far more likely to refer to the public as taxpayers than as citizens. And I couldn’t agree more with your final line, it is indeed ‘a pernicious ideological assault on the very idea of equal citizenship.’

Vincent Browne (one of the last sane public voices in Ireland) covers this very well in a talk he gave last year (which inevitably found its way onto YouTube). Browne’s talk starts at 18:30, but he deals with the issue of “the taxpayer” from about 23:00 onwards. It’s good stuff.

47

ZM 11.05.13 at 8:23 pm

“Point 1. In a state that at least markets itself as a democracy, the principle ought to be that the state is answerable to the electorate. Pretty much everyone in the electorate pays taxes (VAT at least) but the key idea is not that the state is answerable to them because they pay for it, but rather because it is a non-voluntary entity that claims authority over them and subjects them to its laws.
….
The “taxpayer” trope is a pernicious ideological assault on the very idea of equal citizenship. It is elitist and exclusionary and promulgates a false theory of the state according to which government belongs to the propertied. No it doesn’t: it belongs to its citizens, rich and poor, old and young.”

While I largely agree with the OP’s denouncement of the “taxpayer trope” – I do have some quibbles.

The UK is not a democracy -it is a Monarchy – where the powers of Queen and Parliament and Judiciary are a little confusing and dependent on a variety of things, including public support for the actors. It is probably better to argue about the trove then from the perspective of the actual legal structure, unwritten largely tho it is, than of what you identify as the “marketed” unreal structure.

Structurally the Crown is answerable to its subjects and has a duty towards them (yes, I know practice doesn’t live up to the, what with beheading wives and high lord chancellors and taking on headship of the church and all) – to the best of my knowledge England/UK didn’t ever arrive at a point of absolute monarchic power.

So, your first point could be expressed as the crown has a duty towards its subjects, and the people who form the upper and lower houses of the parliament likewise have a duty (they take oaths – do lords take oaths BTW?) therefore to the subjects of the crown as Ministers etc to the crown.

In terms of “the idea of equal citizen ship” it is difficult to know what you mean, because people mean all sorts of things other than someone who lives in a city when they use “citizen” (hey, there were denizen laws for foreign people living in Britain before the naturalisation laws came into being).

So, suppose you mean ” subjects of the crown with the lawful right to vote” but then we come to equal – this is a problem because a feature not a bug of the system (unless you’re literally- in the earlier sense – pursuing a contemporary equal version of Athenian style democracy) is unequal political power – there’s all the subjects, the bearer of the crown, the members of commons, and the lords and so forth, which I don’t entirely understand especially since the Prime Minister got rid of their powers to review by saying if it was a matter of money (which funnily enough they always argue that it is) it’s a matter for Commons only.

Anyway, subjects/citizen have unequal powers in the structure – lots of people vote, but few deliberate on the laws.

Likewise, you could end your argument with the parliament belongs to the crown which has ancient duties to its subjects. This is more truly constitutional I believe.

48

Theophylact 11.05.13 at 8:47 pm

The UK may not be a republic, but it’s a democracy for many practical purposes. Certainly more of one than the US, which has an upper legislative house wildly unrepresentative of population, and not a mere delaying factor like the House of Lords.

49

Rob 11.05.13 at 8:58 pm

Layman @44

I would dispute that Richard Littlejohn is representative of the UK mainstream. I’m sure he has a sizable constituency of like-minded followers, but they’re mercifully few enough in number that they can be safely ignored for most purposes. My point still stands, that we should not allow Littlejohn and his ilk to define terms like “taxpayer”.

Secondly, as you rightly point out, the person he’s attacking is herself a taxpayer. If we give up the right to use that word, we give up one more counter-argument we can use against Littlejohn. It might not seem like much, especially when his blatant racism is a far bigger problem in that article, but if we want to encourage people to feel solidarity with the women he’s attacking then “she’s a taxpayer like the rest of us” is not a bad line to have available.

50

Phil 11.05.13 at 9:33 pm

This is apposite:

FactCheck: do immigrants pay their way?

[break] down immigrants into those from the European Economic Area (EEA) and those from outside, and big differences emerge.

“Whereas EEA immigrants have made an overall positive fiscal contribution to the UK, the net fiscal balance of non-EEA immigrants is negative” the research concludes…”as it is for natives”.

51

Layman 11.05.13 at 9:52 pm

@Rob

I don’t mean to malign UK residents, just to point out that there do seem to be some people over there playing the ‘taxpayers’ game per the OP.

I suppose VAT makes your counter more viable, though it would not serve the same rhetorical counter purpose in the US as most state and local sales taxes are considerably lower here, and the idea that they don’t count as taxes has caught on quite nicely. Heck, even payroll taxes, which fund social security and medicare and are called ‘taxes’, don’t seem to count as ‘taxes’ when it comes to the ‘taxpayers’ trope. Thus Mitt Romney.

That aside, what about someone who genuinely pays little or no taxes? Should we accept that this person, however impossible it might be to find them, isn’t entitled to government? I don’t think so, and that’s why I think the use of ‘taxpayers’ as a qualification for government consideration shouldn’t be permitted. Other than that, I don’t think we disagree, so I will let it go.

52

Ben 11.05.13 at 9:55 pm

What is the moral basis for taxation at all?[1] You all seem to think that it is simply that “we” have democratically “decided” that that is the tax to pay, so therefore it is moral. Which is wrong.

Good is not good because it is what God wills. God wills it because it is good. Therefore: You can tell the difference between an angel and a devil by what they ask you to do. [2]

Government power is not legitimate because of its formal source. Its formal source is legitimate because and to the extent that it leads to good government. So: As democracy is simply a civil war continued by other means – “counting heads instead of breaking them”, its legitimacy comes from its having better consequences than actual civil war, not from its conformance to any theory of how government ought to be.

Taxation, like any exercise of power, to be legitimate, requires a moral basis which is logically prior to the mere power to exact it which democracy provides. Otherwise instead of democracy justifying the exercise of power, the exercise of power condemns democracy.

So: Yes, net taxpayers are entitled to ask what the moral basis is.

If you say “because that’s what our democratically elected parliament/congress decided” you are not giving a reason – you are just saying “because we have the power to do it”. But voters like to imagine themselves as fair-minded people, and will want to know the reason, so you will have to do better than that – for if there is no moral basis, that casts doubt on the legitimacy both of the government and of the democratic system itself.

[1](I do have an answer to this, of course. And I am sure you do – you just don’t have one most voters would recognise.)

[2](I am invoking theology here by way of metaphor, just so nobody gets carried away with this paragraph in particular and starts discussing Aquinas or whatever.)

53

guthrie 11.05.13 at 9:57 pm

Rob #39 , Trader Joe #42 – sure, some newspapers might call them out if ‘they’ talked about disenfranchising people, but the steps are already being taken – they changed the way our election registration operates here in the UK, so that you have to sign up yourself, no more letters through your door asking you to fill in the form listing who lives in your house who is elligible to vote. Given what horrors of stupidity have been committed by the Tories already in the name of reducing welfare, it seems to me that the only reason they’ve not tried to reduce who has what say is because the current system works pretty damn well for the owning class – who sponsors all the stuff at the party conferences? Answer – corporations who do well out of the taxpayer funded largesse of the governments privatisation policies. Who gained hundreds of millions of pounds when the Royal Mail was sold below market value – not the average taxpayer. And so on and on.

54

ZM 11.05.13 at 10:21 pm

Ben @51
“Taxation, like any exercise of power, to be legitimate, requires a moral basis which is logically prior to the mere power to exact it which democracy provides. Otherwise instead of democracy justifying the exercise of power, the exercise of power condemns democracy.

So: Yes, net taxpayers are entitled to ask what the moral basis is.

If you say “because that’s what our democratically elected parliament/congress decided” you are not giving a reason – you are just saying “because we have the power to do it”. But voters like to imagine themselves as fair-minded people, and will want to know the reason, so you will have to do better than that – for if there is no moral basis, that casts doubt on the legitimacy both of the government and of the democratic system itself.”

Oh my goodness, can people please stop using the word democracy unless they specify what they actually mean by it. So far as I know there is no actual democracy in the world.

Speaking of England and its related territories, colonies and former colonies etc., perhaps tribute arose before taxation (if anyone can correct this I would be most grateful):

“Edward’s heir Athelstan (reigned 925-39) was also a distinguished and audacious soldier who pushed the boundaries of the kingdom to their furthest extent yet. In 927-8, Athelstan took York from the Danes; he forced the submission of king Constantine of Scotland and of the northern kings; all five Welsh kings agreed to pay a huge annual tribute (reportedly including 25,000 oxen), and Athelstan eliminated opposition in Cornwall. “

“For the rest of Ethelred’s rule (reigned 978-1016), his brother became a posthumous rallying point for political unrest; a hostile Church transformed Edward into a royal martyr. Known as the Un-raed or ‘Unready’ (meaning ‘no counsel’, or that he was unwise), Ethelred failed to win or retain the allegiance of many of his subjects. In 1002, he ordered the massacre of all Danes in England to eliminate potential treachery.

Not being an able soldier, Ethelred defended the country against increasingly rapacious Viking raids from the 980s onwards by diplomatic alliance with the duke of Normandy in 991 (he later married the duke’s daughter Emma) and by buying off renewed attacks by the Danes with money levied through a tax called the Danegeld. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1006 was dismissive: ‘in spite of it all, the Danish army went about as it pleased’. By 1012, 48,000 pounds of silver was being paid in Danegeld to Danes camped in London.”

http://www.royal.gov.uk/HistoryoftheMonarchy/KingsandQueensofEngland/TheAnglo-Saxonkings/EthelredIItheUnready.aspx

55

MPAVictoria 11.05.13 at 10:56 pm

“The UK is not a democracy -it is a Monarchy”

Sigh… This is the kind of comment that people post to seem smart when really it reveals their ignorance. See the similar “the US is a republic not a democracy” which is very common on sites such as fark and digg.

56

Ben 11.05.13 at 11:16 pm

@ZM, you skipped the point, which is that it doesn’t matter what “democracy” is. The legitimacy of government power does not depend on that, it depends on how the power is used.

Aside from that “no democracy ever existed” is an insane thing to say. Next you will say that socialism hasn’t really been tried… 100 million dead and counting… tick… tick… tick…

It is what it is. If socialism always goes wrong, just accept that it always goes wrong and that this is a flaw in socialism, just as if certain design of building always collapses it is a flaw in the design. If democracy always degenerates to oligarchy or ochlocracy then that is what it is. It doesn’t make it “not democracy”, any more than me being a hunchback cripple rather than the Moses Rauluni I imagine in my head means I am not myself.

57

Dave 11.05.13 at 11:20 pm

…and now Rob Ford won’t resign, citing “the taxpayer.”

Even still, I don’t imagine the taxpayer will see his or her reputation decline as a result of this unseemly association.

58

Bruce Baugh 11.05.13 at 11:44 pm

As an American, I’ve noticed two things about the “taxpayer” thing.

First, it devalues a lot of the taxes people actually pay: withholding taxes, state and county and local taxes of all kinds, sales taxes, and so forth and on. It fetishes federal income tax, in particular.

Second, a bunch of the people valorized (by themselves and others) as “the taxpayer” aren’t actually paying a lot of federal income tax. They have income via capital gains, corporate arrangements, and so forth, and often boast of how thoroughly they escape the federal income tax. So as with the warmongers who are themselves far too cowardly to risk danger and make up for that by abusing and oppressing others to do what they choose not to, “the taxpayer” is very often “someone who would pay taxes if more of their income were taxable and they slacked off cheating and exploiting loopholes”.

59

ZM 11.05.13 at 11:58 pm

Ben, “Aside from that “no democracy ever existed” is an insane thing to say. Next you will say that socialism hasn’t really been tried… 100 million dead and counting… tick… tick… tick…”

I don’t know my Marx terribly well, and possibly someone else can step in here, but wasn’t socialism the “dictatorship of the proletariat” (whatever that sleight of hand is supposed to mean)? Don’t know whether you could argue that’s been tried or not, b/c as I said, I think it’s a deliberately obfuscatory way of saying something. Now, has communism been tried on t’other hand?

Re:your last point, I don’t know this Moses chap of whom you refer (perhaps you could illuminate this point), but, LOL , now I am imagining you as a variant of Shakespeare’s Richard 3. I have no doubt you are yourself, it is too fine a tautology to disagree with.

I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them—
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to see my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

60

David 11.06.13 at 12:03 am

“So: As democracy is simply a civil war continued by other means – “counting heads instead of breaking them”, its legitimacy comes from its having better consequences than actual civil war, not from its conformance to any theory of how government ought to be.”

Says…who exactly? You seem to be sneaking a lot of “oughts” in under the pretense of being ruthlessly objective.

61

David 11.06.13 at 12:05 am

“Next you will say that socialism hasn’t really been tried… 100 million dead and counting… tick… tick… tick…”

Ignorance. Socialism isn’t really a single thing that can be tried. It can take dozens of forms. Some forms of socialism (Marxist-Leninist central planning) have been tried and found wanting, but it is pretty clear that they resemble very little Marx’s original intentions.

Again, all I find in your posts is ignorance and conservatism trying to pass itself off as principled truthseeking.

62

Bruce Baugh 11.06.13 at 12:24 am

Not sure why a post of mine is in moderation. Words used by spammers, I presume.

63

Sandwichman 11.06.13 at 12:30 am

“I love this city, love saving taxpayers’ money and I love being your mayor.” — Rob Ford, November 5, 2013

“Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine. But no, do I, am I an addict? No. Have I tried it? Probably in one of my drunken stupors, probably approximately about a year ago.” –Rob Ford, November 5, 2013

“I wasn’t lying. You didn’t ask the correct questions.” — Rob Ford, November 5, 2013

64

Consumatopia 11.06.13 at 12:43 am

Government power is not legitimate because of its formal source. Its formal source is legitimate because and to the extent that it leads to good government.

No. Legitimacy isn’t the same as goodness. If you hold a legitimate government issued deed for a piece of land, you have the legitimate right to sell that land to whomever you decide. You don’t have to make a justification to anyone that your decision is “good”. This doesn’t mean that you decide, like a pre-Aquinas God, what good is, it means you get to decide whether or not to do good.

The legitimacy of government comes from the consent of the governed. The governed might consent to something good or bad, but that is their decision to make. Of course, the governed will likely disagree among themselves as to which government is best. In that case, the most legitimate government is the one that most of the people consent to.

(And note that the absence of government–allowing other people to do whatever they want to me–demands as much consent as the presence of government. I absolutely do not consent to the absence of government, and the only way anyone would be able to impose that on me is by initiating a civil war.)

You can try to convince the governed on the basis of what is “good” which kind of government they should consent to, and many of them might listen because, as you say, “voters like to imagine themselves as fair-minded people”. But it’s their consent that makes it legitimate, not goodness or fair-mindedness. A benign robot overlord that maximized our utility with supreme wisdom but without out consent would not be legitimate. Consequences are not good enough, consent is required.

So: Yes, net taxpayers are entitled to ask what the moral basis is.

Everyone is entitled to ask what the moral basis of the state is. In the U.S., a simple answer is given. Check our founding document: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”. Not from good outcomes. Not from the consent of the taxpayers. From the consent of the governed.

[1](I do have an answer to this, of course. And I am sure you do – you just don’t have one most voters would recognise.)

On the contrary, most voters believe in majority rule. It’s a much more popular doctrine than utilitarianism (see the other recent thread). That doesn’t make it right. It does mean that you’re the one who has to do the work of convincing people that a popular doctrine is incorrect. You’ll have to do a lot better than the argument-by-assertion of 51.

65

ZM 11.06.13 at 1:23 am

“Everyone is entitled to ask what the moral basis of the state is. In the U.S., a simple answer is given. Check our founding document: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”. Not from good outcomes. Not from the consent of the taxpayers. From the consent of the governed.”

Well, the founding document was not necessarily written in the best of faith (I’d guess they wrote it in a fairly sophistical manner given history and stuff. What is the “middle landscape” exactly BTW?), but I guess if you have it, use it.

OTOH as that fellow that Henry is so fond of for his not necessarily fair but beautifully put writing, might tell you, different countries have different histories, and different constitutions, oaths of office etc.

66

Consumatopia 11.06.13 at 2:16 am

The legitimacy of the U.S. government doesn’t come from its founding document. On the contrary, by the standards set forth in that document, the U.S. government fell short for most of its history (when it denied various peoples the right to vote.) The U.S. declaration just happens to correctly state where the legitimacy for all governments, in so far as they are legitimate, comes from.

67

geo 11.06.13 at 2:48 am

MPAV @54: True enough. On the other hand, “the US is a plutocracy, not a democracy” is the plain, unvarnished truth.

68

ZM 11.06.13 at 3:01 am

Consumatopia – I know this is the thing you’re “not meant to do on the Internet” – but it’s the easiest sort of example of its kind – was Nazi Germany legitimate in this sense, since there was probably more (???? With notable exceptions) consent from the government than dissent by those within its legal jurisdiction?

69

Tim Wilkinson 11.06.13 at 3:06 am

GiT @34 – “No taxation without representation” is not equivalent to “no representation without taxation”

It is, though, equivalent to something like ‘if taxation then representation”. And if that is the basis for your democratic ideals…

70

David 11.06.13 at 3:11 am

Nazi Germany could not have been, by liberal standards, a legitimate government because the state was not run according to law. Hitler became Prime Minister legally but ultimately suspended all civil rights.

Not that it ultimately matters. By what sense is the United States now ruling “with the consent of the governed”? Is there some way for the citizens to collectively disband the state?

71

ZM 11.06.13 at 4:30 am

Oh, in 66 I meant consent (active or tacit) by the *governed*

72

David 11.06.13 at 4:44 am

Is North Korea governed with the tacit consent of the people then? Was Hungary after 1956?

73

Consumatopia 11.06.13 at 4:44 am

@66, even assuming that Nazis did obtain consent from the majority, not everything a legitimate government does is legitimate. In other words, there is a set of things that governments may legitimately do (taxation is in that set, death camps are not). A government with the consent of the governed may choose things in that set. No government, with or without popular consent, may legitimately choose outside that set.

74

ZM 11.06.13 at 5:02 am

Consumatopia @71
Well, I think then we come back to what is that set, where is it located, if you have located the legitimacy of government in the “consent of the governed”, and the set “of things that governments may legitimately do” as somewhere outside of that?

So, if death camps are out of that set, is the US Civil War in or out of that set? on both sides (I’m not sure about the civil war, but i think i’ve read in later wars the mennonites, for instance and perhaps among others, refused to fight on conscientious grounds – I think some of them perhaps did forestry duties during the war, although i’ve an idea they faced some harsh treatment)? or just on one side?

75

ZM 11.06.13 at 5:14 am

David@68 @70
This is an interesting article by Tariq Ali on North Korea http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n02/tariq-ali/diary

I hope living in the US, and being able to vote etc, is not like living in North Korea. From here, you seem to have more choices available to you than those available to people living in North Korea. Perhaps you’re suggesting this is a mistaken impression? I don’t entirely catch your meaning.

76

GiT 11.06.13 at 5:15 am

“It is, though, equivalent to something like ‘if taxation then representation”. And if that is the basis for your democratic ideals…”

But that is not the same as “if and only if taxation…” Point being I don’t think the slogan was meant to imply taxation was in fact the basis of their democratic ideals. as it stands, in any case, with sales taxes, taxation as a standard for representation would be functionally more inclusive than any of the franchises out there – not to say that it is a good principled standard

77

ZM 11.06.13 at 5:20 am

GiT
“When the United States was founded, only white, male, property-owners were allowed to vote. The Founding Fathers felt that only property-owners would take this right of citizenship seriously since they owned a literal stake in the young nation.
During the early 1800s, the property requirement was lifted as the government became obligated to offer suffrage to veterans fighting for the United States. By the mid-1800s, one had to be a white male in order to vote, but did not need to own property.”
http://www.regentsprep.org/regents/ushisgov/themes/reform/suffrage.htm

78

bad Jim 11.06.13 at 5:34 am

Once upon a time in California, ‘taxpayer’ used to be understood to mean someone who paid property taxes, those being the primary source of revenue for local government, including the school system. The state supreme court found this arrangement inequitable, but nothing was done about it until an initiative constitutional amendment, Proposition 13, tied the state’s taxation system in knots.

Property taxes were cut for most and the state took over responsibility for funding schools, but the result was that the state, and the schools, were chronically starved of money. This is slowly being rectified, but property taxation remains wildly unfair, with businesses and older people paying far less than most. (I keep our tax bill handy to enrage newcomers; worth more than a million, our house is officially appraised at $85k).

Since this was done, though, the word ‘taxpayer’ is no longer used to distinguish between different citizens in questions of municipal finance.

79

Bruce Wilder 11.06.13 at 6:58 am

Is there some way for the citizens to collectively disband the state?

A constitutional convention.

80

Chaz 11.06.13 at 7:18 am

To the OP and supporting comments, yes, and thank you for bringing it up! This “the taxpayers” business is very common in the US as well (note that it’s plural; we have identified multiple taxpayers in the US whereas I guess Osborne has winnowed it down to just one person, probably JK Rowling). It drives me nuts. “The taxpayers” should be “the British/American/etc. people” or “the citizens” and “taxpayer dollars” (Do you guys have “taxpayer pounds”? Doesn’t have the same ring to it.) should be “public money”.

In the US of A if you focus on a particular program you really can identify a lot of people who don’t pay any taxes for that program: sales and property taxes are state and local only, corporate taxes are supposedly paid by shareholders, people forget customs duties exist, and payroll taxes are ostensibly specifically for Social Security and Medicare. So if you’re talking about national park ranger’s salaries or stealth bombers, someone who’s too poor to pay income taxes can be said to have not paid for them. This of course overlooks the fact that our laws structure our society and decide who has how much money, and poor people have thus been massively and unfairly burdened–indirectly taxed–by government arranging for them to be poor in the first place.

The nation, acting through government, has first claim on all resources within its territory, and then decides which resources it will allow people to receive to dispose of personally. Arrogant or misguided people like to tell themselves that the government decides which resources it will “take” and which it will allow them to “keep”, but of course they have it backward. With this statement I sabotage my earlier support for the term “public money” because really it’s all public money, but maybe we can take that to mean money which the government has reserved for government-directed expenditure.

And “No taxation without representation!” is awful too. I attacked that one in a thread a few weeks ago, no recollection on what the original topic was. Back then people defended it, saying as here that it’s only meant to go one way. Fine, but it implies the other way as well to people not trained in strict, formal logic (most people). And in fact you can see people embracing that interpretation. In the lovely Telegraph piece Chris linked to, where the OP argues that the franchise should be restricted in Britain based on income tax payments, one of the equally lovely commentators claims that “No representation without taxation” is a well-established principle. The other thing someone argued when I brought it up in the previous thread was that “No representation without taxation” was just one of several positive arguments for democratic representation and served to back up arguments about inherent rights of citizens. No, I don’t think so. I think it’s a replacement for a proper concept of citizenship which portrays government as an entity separate from the people: either a service provider they enter into contracts with or a thief who steals their money for its own ends. And of course the other key element is the obvious: people were pissed off at new taxes and just didn’t want to pay them. A legitimate founding slogan would be, “No laws without representation”; but of course we want laws so it should just be, “Give us representation” full stop.

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Mao Cheng Ji 11.06.13 at 7:34 am

Legitimacy of a government (or any authority) is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. As well as the meaning of “good” and “bad”. Justifications of legitimacy, whether it’s based on elections or the Juche Idea, is needed to minimize the resistance. It cuts down on the expenses on the loyal police force. Printing some words in a newspaper is cheaper.

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bad Jim 11.06.13 at 8:04 am

A minor nitpick: the Declaration of Independence is no more a founding document than the resolution (presumably from the Naval Committee) defining the flag. The various acts of the Continental Congresses were superseded by the Constitution and subsequent legislation.

The thread’s long enough that I’m surprised no one’s brought up alternative criteria for citizenship, like military service (Starship Troopers, anyone?) which was nearly universal in living memory, but is now so rare as to be given merely lip service, however obsequious, and is not restricted to citizens.

In the U.S. it’s far from clear that illegal immigrants don’t pay their freight; it’s widely suspected that they pay more in taxes (including a tithe to social security) than they’re able to collect. Cultural panic notwithstanding (salsa more popular than ketchup) it’s not clear who’s exploiting whom.

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reason 11.06.13 at 8:19 am

Isn’t the more fundamental problem the MMT point – tax paying is not needed to pay for services (at least not in countries who issue debt in their own currency), but to fight inflation.

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Mao Cheng Ji 11.06.13 at 8:27 am

“it’s not clear who’s exploiting whom”

I think it’s quite obvious that the undocumented workers are exploited. And if you choose to frame it as ‘the citizens and legal residents exploit the undocumented workers’, that might be true on average, but there could be a portion of the citizens/residents who suffer (wage suppression).

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GiT 11.06.13 at 8:42 am

ZM @77 – I’m not sure why you’re quoting sketchy high-school history at me.

Not all the colonies had property qualifications. Federal law was silent on the matter. Yes, many people certainly argued for property limitations, but momentum against such qualifications was continuous throughout, and gradually won out, in the 80 or so years after the founding. That didn’t come out of nowhere.

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Plucky Underdog 11.06.13 at 9:49 am

2 points: first, the word “welfare” still reads a bit strange in the British media — to this Brit, at least — “benefits” used to be customary (& a lot sweeter-sounding IMO). Evidence of transatlantic political-consultant industriousness? Second, I always thought that the phrase “no taxation without representation” draws an important distinction — the first abstract noun doesn’t just rhyme, it emphasises the fact that it’s the same *rules* for everybody (as opposed to the *burden*, absolute or percentagewise, which is in fact a function of individual circumstances). Which a lot of folk on both sides of the aisle seem to elide, possibly for different reasons.

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ajay 11.06.13 at 10:00 am

I am still waiting for an example of someone (in Britain) actually using the word “taxpayer” IN SUCH A WAY THAT IT CLEARLY MEANS NET TAXPAYERS ONLY.

People have pointed out that the government clearly feels that only people with jobs are real Britons – the “alarm clock Britain” thing – but this is not the same thing. A low-paid worker with dependents, or a need for expensive healthcare, could easily be a net beneficiary. People have asserted that “it clearly refers to net taxpayers”, using “clearly” in the academic sense of “this is not clear at all so please don’t look at this bit of the argument too closely”. People have pointed out that a net-contributor criterion is used under certain circumstances in immigration law, which is interesting but not apposite.

I don’t think that “taxpayer” is ever used to mean “net contributor only” in Britain. This entire post is a strawman.

they changed the way our election registration operates here in the UK, so that you have to sign up yourself, no more letters through your door asking you to fill in the form listing who lives in your house who is elligible to vote.

This is a lie. I got such a letter through my door last week.

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Chris Bertram 11.06.13 at 10:12 am

ajay: it is implicit when Theresa May says ““The key themes to our approach are stopping abuse, promoting integration and reducing the burden on the taxpayer” re migration and then moves to deprives anyone who is not a *net contributor* of the right to sponsor a foreign spouse, that this is what is meant. If welfare claimants are seen as burdens “on the taxpayer” the claim is clearly (yes “clearly”) not that they are burdens on themselves (as VAT payers) but rather that there is a net transfer from someone else – the taxpayer – to them. My contention is that the casual use of “taxpayer” in media interviewers and the sense intended by such bodies as The Taxpayers’ Alliance also have this connotation. (If you still think it is a straw man, then please feel free to harrumph (as you usually do) and stroll off into the distance.)

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ZM 11.06.13 at 10:38 am

GiT @85
“I’m not sure why you’re quoting sketch high-school history at me”

I was responding to:

“But that is not the same as “if and only if taxation…” Point being I don’t think the slogan was meant to imply taxation was in fact the basis of their democratic ideals”

and was busy and couldn’t be bothered looking for anything specific.

My assumption from this statement (and perhaps I’m wrong) is that you are discounting the importance of property ownership and tax paying in the construction of what class of person is going to be entitled to participate politically, in composing an idea of who “the people” are, and that you are ignoring that it’s been pretty contested as to who is entitled to the right to vote in elections for representative government. Property ownership and taxation, I think, were pretty important in limiting who various powerful actors extended their “democratic ideals” to.

So, maybe you’re telling me that I have misinterpreted your comment, or perhaps you’re saying I should quote something less sketchy and more specific?

If the latter, here’s a quote from an old book (1918 – the ebook is freely downloadable): A History of Suffrage in the United States

“Here is a resolution passed in the Massachussetts constitutional convention of 1779: “Resolved, that it is the essence of a free republic tat the people be governed by fixed laws of their own making.” This particular convention was perfectly honest in this declaration and still considered it thoroughly consistent to restrict “the people” who should govern that State to property owners.
Such resolutions as this were later turned against the very men who made them. Abstract propositions of right continually proved to boomerang and struck with telling force. “All elections ought to be free, and all the male inhabitants of this commonwealth, having sufficient qualifications, have an equal right to elect officers.” The little phrase about having sufficient qualifications was weak indeed against the contention that all the male inhabitants had an equal right to elect officers.
In the Pennsylvania convention of 1789 all joined heartily in the following statement and had it printed in bold type:
“All power being originally vested in, is derived from, the people, and all free governments originate from their will, are founded on their authority, and are instituted for their peace, safety, and happiness; and for the advancement thereof; they ave at all times, an unalienable, and indefeasible right to alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may think proper.”
In spite of this acceptance of an abstract principle a vigorous effort was early made in the convention to establish a promptly qualification for suffrage. Almost feverish eagerness was manifest to get such a restriction in, and it was proposed almost before the business of the convention was well under way. Eventually there was apprehension that it would not carry, and it did not; in its stead the usual compromise if a taxpaying qualification was introduced.
Both these large states and their smaller neighbours were extravagant in their formal announcements of the rights of “the people”. But Massachussetts considered “the people” to be the property owners. Pennsylvania was one step in advance of Massachussetts and considered “the people” to be the taxpayers.”

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MPAVictoria 11.06.13 at 11:05 am

“MPAV @54: True enough. On the other hand, “the US is a plutocracy, not a democracy” is the plain, unvarnished truth.”

Eh, how about a plutocratic democracy?

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ZM 11.06.13 at 11:50 am

““The UK is not a democracy -it is a Monarchy”

Sigh… This is the kind of comment that people post to seem smart when really it reveals their ignorance. See the similar “the US is a republic not a democracy” which is very common on sites such as fark and digg.”

I have no idea about the US – I’d imagine its legal status is a federated Republic but I don’t really know. The UK’s legal status is as a constitutional monarchy. You may dispute the desirability of this, but I have no idea how you can argue that asserting a jurisdiction’s actual legal status is a mark of ignorance, as opposed to truth. Yes, people are entitled to vote – i didn’t dispute that once. They are also legally entitled to vote in China, for a candidate from Communist Party or from one of the 8 Democratic Parties.

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MPAVictoria 11.06.13 at 12:13 pm

“The UK’s legal status is as a constitutional monarchy.”

Yes, a democratic constitutional monarchy. Just like Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

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Mao Cheng Ji 11.06.13 at 12:35 pm

“Eh, how about a plutocratic democracy?”

Do you mean, like, “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the plutocrats and exercised by them directly or indirectly…”?

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Chris Bertram 11.06.13 at 12:58 pm

I’m sure those arguing about the proper understanding of the British constitution will enjoy this piece by Mike MacNair (for the Communist Party of Great Britain):

http://www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/982/leveson-libel-and-lucre

(link not meant to imply endorsement, at least, < 100% endorsement)

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Layman 11.06.13 at 1:19 pm

ajay @ 87

See my comment 44 for a link to a clear example.

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MPAVictoria 11.06.13 at 1:21 pm

“Do you mean, like, “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the plutocrats and exercised by them directly or indirectly…”?”

Ha! Something like that.

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ajay 11.06.13 at 1:25 pm

it is implicit when Theresa May says ““The key themes to our approach are stopping abuse, promoting integration and reducing the burden on the taxpayer” re migration and then moves to deprives anyone who is not a *net contributor* of the right to sponsor a foreign spouse, that this is what is meant. If welfare claimants are seen as burdens “on the taxpayer” the claim is clearly (yes “clearly”) not that they are burdens on themselves (as VAT payers) but rather that there is a net transfer from someone else – the taxpayer – to them.

No, that’s not correct. An immigrant (or indeed anyone) who is living entirely off public funds is a burden in that sense on all taxpayers, not just net contributors. Say you have a country of two people, rich Alice and poor Bob, with only one tax: a 10% income tax. Alice earns £1000 and pays £100 in tax and Bob earns £200 and pays £20. Both of them get £60 in benefits. Alice is a net contributor and Bob is a net recipient.
Now Eve arrives in the country and pays no tax at all – but is still legally entitled to the same benefits as Alice and Bob. Either the tax rate is going to have to go up to 15%, or the benefits are going to have to be cut to £40 a head. Either way, Bob, even though he is already a net recipient and will still be a net recipient after the change is made, can still regard Eve as a burden – as a result of Eve’s arrival, Bob’s either going to be paying more tax or getting less benefit.

(If you still think it is a straw man, then please feel free to harrumph (as you usually do) and stroll off into the distance.)

I’d like to say that this is unworthy of you, but actually it’s well up at your usual level, especially since it’s correctly spelled.

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ajay 11.06.13 at 1:30 pm

95: I’m not sure that it is; I’m really looking for an example of “taxpayer” being used to mean “only people who pay in more than they receive”. In that (pretty horrible) article, “taxpayer” is just really being used as a synonym for “the public purse”. As I say, I’ve never come across an example of someone in the UK actually saying that someone who pays taxes doesn’t count as a taxpayer because they get back slightly more than they pay, and without that the entire post falls apart.

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Layman 11.06.13 at 1:46 pm

ajay, when someone says ‘person A is sponging off the taxpayers’, it is pretty clear to me that they’re excluding person A from the group they call ‘the taxpayers’. I suppose it’s possible they don’t mean that, but that would not be the reasonable conclusion.

If you will grant that, then please consider what it means – the establishment of a standard which places a higher value on those who pay more in taxes; or, if you wish, a lower value on those who pay less in taxes. What else can it mean?

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Josh McCabe 11.06.13 at 2:09 pm

The irony is that this sort of “taxpayer as an elevated cultural category” discourse was aided and abetted by left-leaning parties in both the UK and the US. Think about the push to grant benefits to poor families as taxpayers via the WFTC (and subsequently WTC and CTC) in the UK and the EITC and CTC in the US. They actively pushed for increased benefits using the same taxpayer justification.

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Tim Worstall 11.06.13 at 2:22 pm

* I’ve no idea how accurate Richard Murphy’s figures are, but they don’t seem implausible to me

In this particular instance, with the constraints that Murphy imposes, he’s right. The UK tax system is (mildly) regressive given the weight that is placed upon sin and consumption taxes. That 5 quid on a packet of smokes is obviously going to be a higher portion of the wages of the lower paid than the higher. The BBC licence fee is another example of a truly regressive tax.

Why the larger picture is wrong though is because we shouldn’t look at the tax system in isolation, but at the tax and benefit system. Which is very much progressive: indeed, much of that VAT etc being taxed off the low paid is coming to them in the form of benefits in the first place.

NB: yes, even I believe that the tax and benefits systems together should be progressive.

As to the meaning of taxpayer I actually have met this one coming the other way. I’ve long argued that the minimum wage should be the personal tax (and national insurance) allowance. Apart from anything else it seems absurd that we’ve got some sum that it is just and righteous that everyone should be paid then we’ve got government nicking 20% of it.

But this idea sometimes gets batted back with (and yes, sometimes from the left) the idea that actually, everyone should be in the tax net because it increases civic participation. So actually the opposite of what CB is arguing here. Not that (some) people are arguing that only those who pay tax should be part of the demos, but that all should be taxed so that they are.

Not an idea I find very convincing to be honest.

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ZM 11.06.13 at 2:32 pm

Chris Bertram : if you don’t entirely endorse the article, is there at least a work of yours we can go to, to find your opinions as to the articles’ truth claims? Or, um, you could say here?

“The whole process is a striking example of the normal functioning of the modern British constitution. This is in essence plutocratic: a joint-stock or business corporation of British taxpayers in proportion to their wealth, with special arrangements for the state’s creditors.

The British constitution is not (as the media claim it is) ‘democratic’. Nor is it ‘bourgeois democratic’ – meaning democratic, but parliamentary, not based on workers’ councils (as according to common far-left views).

Nor, yet again is the British constitution actually monarchical in any very strong sense (as in views commonplace on a section of the left in the 1980s and still held by comrade Steve Freeman and his co-thinkers): the oath of allegiance to the queen taken by soldiers, the police, etc gives her a reserve power in the constitution, not a major role in routine state and political management.”

The constitution is unwritten, and isn’t a function but a structure I would imagine (isn’t that distinction something communists are meant to make? Or is this a misunderstanding?) – does this person really want to argue that the constitution itself plutocratic? He would have a case I think, that the plutocratic elements he doesn’t like are unconstitutional. This would be a more true and also more public spirited argument to make in my opinion.

No, it is not a “strong” monarchy, if by strong one were to mean absolutist, as such. Prince Charles is named, presumably, after male relatives some of who came to bad ends at the hands of various people. I think if he is crowned, he means to take the name George, hopefully this might be a little more auspicious.

The UK constitution is somewhat like its judiciary so far as I can tell from here:
http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/about-the-judiciary/introduction-to-justice-system/history-of-the-judiciary

“It’s doubtful that anyone asked to design a justice system would choose to copy the English and Welsh model. It’s contradictory in places, and rather confusing.”

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Chris Armstrong 11.06.13 at 2:58 pm

I’d reject the principle that only people who pay taxes in the UK should vote in the UK. *On the other hand…* it would be fun watching the Tories trying to defend it consistently, disenfranchising all those Tory voters on the Costa Brava. And extending it also, perhaps, to people who don’t pay UK taxes but do, nevertheless, contribute to UK political parties, act on their governing bodies, and so on… And some of those parties in particular (Tories and UKIP, anyone?)

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ZM 11.06.13 at 3:09 pm

““The UK’s legal status is as a constitutional monarchy.”

Yes, a democratic constitutional monarchy. Just like Canada, New Zealand and Australia.”

I’d have to go to the trouble of looking it up, and I’m not going to right now, but I guess you could – the constitutional monarchy part is – as you would guess- constitutional. The voting part (I can only assume this is what you mean by democratic) is probably I think in an act called something like the voting rights act. But I’m not going to look it up right now. Feel free to.

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MPAVictoria 11.06.13 at 3:30 pm

“I’d have to go to the trouble of looking it up, and I’m not going to right now, but I guess you could – the constitutional monarchy part is – as you would guess- constitutional. The voting part (I can only assume this is what you mean by democratic) is probably I think in an act called something like the voting rights act. But I’m not going to look it up right now. Feel free to.”

What are you even talking about?

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Chris Bertram 11.06.13 at 3:40 pm

ZM: I think you’ve probably contributed enough to this thread now …. please come back another day.

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Z 11.06.13 at 3:43 pm

I am late to the game and I have read precisely zero comment, but

The “taxpayer” idea claims that only those who pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits make “a contribution”. But that’s nonsense. Many poorly paid people make a contribution through work that they ought to be paid more for. The fact that they are underpaid and exploited shouldn’t be held against the many many people who, for example, keep our public and health services running. Many people who are not “economically active” make a contribution to society as parents, carers or in many other ways. And those unable to make a contribution because of age or disability: they have the same right to a say as anybody else.

is just too beautifully and forcefully put for me to let it pass without a word of congratulation.

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Rob 11.06.13 at 4:34 pm

I think we can safely conclude from all of this that the meaning of “taxpayer” in Britain is more complicated than is presented in the OP. There’s obviously a division of opinion between people (like me) who think that “taxpayer” is a useful concept and those who think it is pernicious. If I may summarise the case in favour of “taxpayer”:

a) It encourages us all to think that, however much or little we pay, the money that the government spends is our money (and to the extent that the government is borrowing money, it’s doing so on the basis that it’s counting on us to continue paying taxes, or paying increased amounts in the future).
b) It links the taxes you pay at the supermarket checkout or on your monthly payslip or in your council tax bill with stuff the government is actually doing; yes, you have a right to examine those things as a voter and not just as a taxpayer, but I think it makes for a more visceral connection in people’s minds.
c) To the extent that it’s a label that excludes people, it is actually more likely to exclude, say, Lord Ashcroft (who has opted out of paying certain taxes despite having the means to do so) than it is an unemployed immigrant, who at least pays the taxes that they’re required to even if that’s not a whole lot of money in the grand scheme of things.

The arguments against seem to be that:

a) “Taxpayer” competes with “public money” as a way of understanding whose money it is, and “public money” is preferable.
b) “Taxpayer” actually only refers to net taxpayers anyway.
c) If b) isn’t currently true, the right (TPA, think tanks, Richard Littlejohn) are trying to make it that way, so we should pre-emptively de-legitimise the word.

For my part, I’m persuaded by counter-argument A, in that “public money” would be a preferable term for that money which the government has at its disposal. I’d like to see more about how to bring that concept back into use. I find counter-argument B totally unpersuasive as it runs contrary to how I think most people use the term. I appreciate that everyone has their own anecdotes here, but I’m basically in agreement with ajay. Counter-argument C works if you think we can safely jettison “taxpayer” as part of our political vocabulary; I can see the case for doing so, but I think “taxpayer” gives us a bigger stick to beat tax-dodging oligarchs and purely extractive corporate tax-avoidance schemes than it gives to the right to beat up on the poor. Romney’s “47%” concept is thankfully not yet upon is in Britain and I’m not sure that ceding “taxpayer” as a rhetorical device to the right will do us any good in keeping it at bay.

One final point is that I really can’t imagine getting anywhere in British public discourse if your starting position is “screw the taxpayer”. A lot of people, even (especially?) poor people are proud to pay the full whack of tax, because it’s what separates them from the self-interest of the elite who are characterised by the increasing lengths they go to to avoid paying their fair share. Tax is generally harder to dodge if you’re poor, and even if you can dodge a bit here and there (payment in cash for odd jobs, overdoing it on the duty free fags and booze), the amount you can dodge is going to be proportionally small compared to those who have full-time professionals helping them to do it. And let’s not forget, who are the taxpayers who’ve stepped up to reduce the deficit lately? Not the high earners, who’ve seen the top rate of tax cut to 45%, but the ordinary people who has seen their VAT go from 15% to 20% with no sign of it coming back down. In proportion to the sacrifice made, the real taxpayers in Britain are actually the poorest and “taxpayer” should be their badge of pride.

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phosphorious 11.06.13 at 5:21 pm

So “The Taxpayer” has come to Great Britain? That’s bad, but you can survive it.

When “The Job Creator” gets there. . . THEN it’s time to start slitting throats.

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Layman 11.06.13 at 6:42 pm

When “The Job Creator” gets there. . . THEN it’s time to start slitting throats.

…and choose the throats carefully. No need to waste effort.

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ZM 11.06.13 at 6:42 pm

MPAVictoria@105
“What are you even talking about?”

Ok, I am not going to look this up to make a case for the UK the UK.

If you want to, and you actuall care two figs about the answer, you can do the research.

Buy, taking Australia as an example, which is easier to look up for me:

The written part of the constitution proclaims a commonwealth with a head, the Queen, an upper house, and a lower house.

It also allows that the senators of the upper house and the members of the lower house shall be elected.

BUT as far as I can see (and this is only at a glance) it doesn’t state who can and who cannot vote (presumably if you’re talking about democracy you’re meaning universal adult suffrage right?): ” No adult person who has or acquires a right to vote at elections for the more numerous House of the Parliament of a State shall, while the right continues, be prevented by any law of the Commonwealth from voting at elections for either House of the Parliament of the Commonwealth.”

To find out who has the right to vote, one looks up an Act (or an Act and a supplementary Act): The Commonwealth Electoal Act 1918-1962

Therefore, I would posit, that if one equates democracy with universal adult suffrage, Australia is not a constitutional democracy, but merely a legal one. YMMV

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ZM 11.06.13 at 6:43 pm

Apologies for the spelling errors

113

ZM 11.06.13 at 6:45 pm

Sorry CB just saw your comment, no worries, shall do

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Katherine 11.06.13 at 6:48 pm

I always took it to mean “a person who pays taxes”. Which is all of us – at least, all of us adults.

In which case, why not just say “people”. It’s like the use of “Americans” instead of “people”; it sounds on the face of it as if you’re talking about everyone, but it’s subtely exclusionary. It sets up an In Group – those who pay tax – and by implication, an Out Group – those who don’t.

Since it also sets up a financial criterion by which to measure citizenship and contribution, it also implies greater contribution = greater citizenship = greater influence.

It’s insidious and disenfranchising to those of us who, for whatever reason, don’t contribute much via taxation.

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mpowell 11.06.13 at 8:06 pm

I agree with phosphorious. Taxpayer isn’t so bad. Mostly because I think that CB has badly failed to prove his claim that it is frequently (if ever) used to refer to net taxpayers. Ajay points out the problem with this claim. There is a problem with usage in the United States where retired people, children or people who pay plenty of taxes but no federal income taxes are regarded as moochers because they are not ‘taxpayers’. That’s obnoxious.

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Mao Cheng Ji 11.06.13 at 8:22 pm

The media address the question of accountability. That’s good. The government is supposed to be accountable to the citizens. But they make it sound like the government is accountable to the taxpayers. Sounds like the more you pay the more important you are, to the government. Well, I’d say: they’re giving away the game, that’s all. And maybe that’s a good thing too.

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Ronan(rf) 11.06.13 at 8:43 pm

“claim that it is frequently (if ever) used to refer to net taxpayers. Ajay points out the problem with this claim”

I dont get this argument, tbh, but I havent really been paying close attention. Is the argument that ‘taxpayers’ isnt used in this way that frequently in the UK? Or just a disagreement on what the term ‘taxpayer’ is meant to suggest?
B/c if its the second part, surely political rhetoric is generally meant to be unclear and slippery, meaning different things by different people in different contexts etc These soundbites arent written up in good faith by expert commitees utilising academic best practices..
Or am I missing the point?

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Mao Cheng Ji 11.06.13 at 8:53 pm

It doesn’t matter if it refers to the net taxpayers or gross taxpayers. If I pay 0 gbp in taxes then I shouldn’t question the government. Okay. But if I pay 1 gbp then suddenly I have as much right to question the government as someone who pays 1,000,000 gbp? That wouldn’t make sense. Clearly my value to the government has to correlate positively with the amount I pay.

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Igor Belanov 11.06.13 at 9:22 pm

In current British political and mass media discourse, ‘taxpayer’ is fairly clearly used to differentiate those who regard themselves as net contributors to state finances and therefore those who believe themselves to be unfairly subsidising those who earn less and allegedly receive more from the state. The actual definition of ‘taxpayer’ matters little, the use of the word is yet another tool to divide the population. ‘Hard-working families’ is another ruse of this kind. Most people would like to be seen as ‘hard-working’, but the phrase is clearly designed to exclude those not earning a wage, no matter how hard they might work in other ways.
I certainly don’t see any threat to universal suffrage in the UK and a return to property-based qualifications. Unfortunately they don’t really need to, and it would cause a furore that the right could quite easily manage without.

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Theophylact 11.06.13 at 9:22 pm

That would make, say, Mother Theresa valueless. (A point I’d be willing to argue, but on other grounds.)

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novakant 11.06.13 at 11:55 pm

I would say that tax-payer vs. government accountability is still the primary distinction here and that net-contributor vs. net-beneficiary distinction – whatever that is supposed to mean exactly – will never gain similar traction, since most of the people with real money and power are pretty good at both minimizing their contributions to the state and siphoning off tax money on a large scale. It might do for Daily Mail readers, but they’re useful idiots.

The former distinction will always be needed to keep governments on their toes and remind them who they are supposed to be working for. And if our taxes are used to finance wars and other devious government projects, the ethics of paying taxes become rather murky.

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StevenAttewell 11.07.13 at 3:20 am

Josh McCabe @100 –

You’re misreading history a bit. The shift to redistribution via tax credits for the working poor was a defensive reaction to an already existing politics of the taxpayer as an elevated cultural category. It was meant to rehabilitate the image of the poor by emphasizing the working poor as opposed to the stigmatized non-working poor, and to distribute benefits through the tax code in order to make them more difficult for the right to attack as welfare.

Not that different from the creation of social insurance systems during the New Deal and the Attlee government, really.

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faustusnotes 11.07.13 at 3:39 am

This post misses a lot of the class- and race-based nature of rhetoric about welfare in the UK. UK rhetoric is primarily about “scroungers” and foreigners, not about taxpayers vs. non-taxpayers. The “scrounger” epiphet doesn’t indicate only a non-taxpayer, but someone who doesn’t do any productive work, is probably criminal, and ideally has children to multiple partners. It’s a class-based insult, and it often recognizes that a lot of these “scroungers” actually do have jobs and aren’t paying tax – but you don’t see many efforts to make employers enrol their employees in the system. The debate in the UK doesn’t juxtapose tax-payers and non-tax payers, but workers and non-workers. To some extent these are the same thing, but the rhetoricians generally don’t make that explicit.

The same applies with foreigners, the other class of people supposedly responsible for all Britain’s ills. The concern is not that they pay taxes or not, but that they move in and out of the country undocumented, they steal our jobs, undercut good British labourers for wages, and don’t care about the country. This is why so much of the anti-foreigner rhetoric is focused on Europeans rather than Indians, and why it changes with the current ethnic group du jour, rather than applying equally to all ethnic groups over time. Where concerns about foreigners move into economic fields outside of labour, they are typically about infrastructure – too many people with no documentation using the NHS, the trains (private!), housing (private!) and so on. The NHS is the battleground for this but it’s primarily a debate about infrastructure not taxation. Note that recent proposals to charge a fee to foreigners to use the NHS don’t distinguish between tax-paying and non-tax paying foreigners.

You can see the left-wing nadir of this in Gordon Brown’s campaign a few years ago for “British jobs for British workers.” Not much to say about taxation there, but a lot of concerns about how foreigners are taking away local jobs. It is, as ajay says, all about “alarm clock britain”.

It’s common for commentators on the UK’s welfare and labour problems to overlook the role of race and class in the debate. The OP is just another example of same, I think.

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js. 11.07.13 at 6:18 am

I haven’t read the whole thread closely, but what I don’t get about people defending the “taxpayer” usage is this:

What’s good about it? The “accountability” thing is strange, because the govt. should be accountable to the people anyway. I mean, that’s just who it should be accountable to. What mileage are we supposed to get out of making it accountable to some notionally different class of entities, viz., “the taxpayers”?

Beyond that, I think Katherine @114 is exactly right: the trope is rather more insidious than lots of people seem willing to acknowledge.

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Neville Morley 11.07.13 at 7:41 am

Very interesting discussion, but there have been times when it’s seemed strangely blind to the power of rhetoric to shape ideas and reactions; of course, as various people have noted, this isn’t just about the precise definition of ‘taxpayer’ and the actual structure of representation, it’s about the associations of different terms. Much harder to pin down and demonstrate in any given instance that *this* is what’s meant – and that’s precisely why it’s so insidious, as Katherine has suggested. The fact that ‘taxpayers’ is often used as a synonym for ‘the state’ or ‘the public purse’ does not mean that it makes no difference which term is used.

Would it help to think of different examples from the case of social security? My immediate thoughts were of funding for intellectual activity or the arts. The question ‘why should the state fund high-concept opera, or research into twentieth-century women’s writing?’ is easier to answer, I would suggest, than the question of why ‘taxpayers’ (implicitly, ordinary people with no interest in opera or twentieth-century women’s writing) should fund them. It’s not just the implication that only net contributors should be calling the shots, it’s also the implication that the tastes and assumptions of a middling group of (probably) Daily Mail readers – here, tending to exclude the sorts of taxpayers who actually like high concept opera as being unrepresentative of the majority – should be calling the shots.

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reason 11.07.13 at 8:48 am

What I take this is:
1. Yes the use of the word “taxpayer” subtly and importantly distorts the discussion.
2. If we want to point this discussion in the correct direction we need to change the language in two ways
a. We need to use the terms “efficiency of resource use” more.
b. We need to be more explicit about “opportunity cost” (what the opportunity cost of what we are proposing really is) – rather than it being a vague hand wave. That will make it clear that shifting an employer from public employment to unemployment isn’t a saving at all.

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Chaz 11.07.13 at 10:33 am

At least in US usage, when something is “at the taxpayer’s expense” the implication is universally that it is bad. But here’s the extra rub: the second implication is that the item in question should be eliminated and taxes cut in proportion. And as soon as you bring up tax cuts (implied by even using the word “tax”) people start salivating over the massive amount of cash they could get in tax cuts if the Trivial Government Expense Of The Day was eliminated. Once you get them thinking that way there’s basically nothing they think is worth their hard-earned tax dollars–no not even the FDA!–but never mind that, the ads will focus on supposedly undesirable stuff anyway. Over time this aggregates into the third implication: Government spending consists primarily of these awful wasteful things that have been cherrypicked for ads, and if it weren’t for all that you wouldn’t have to pay any taxes. And therefore government spending should be slashed and taxes slashed too.

Now, when you say that “public money” is being used for something it’s a bit different. If we cut that thing then it would free up that public money for some other public use. It reinforces the concept that there should be a pool of funds spent by government for the public good, and supports public expenditure rather than stigmatizing it.

Now on the “net taxpayer” thing: In the US I think people are not at all thinking of “net taxpayers”, at least not consciously, but that’s because there’s no need to. Welfare barely even exists. As discussed above, to Republicans, only federal income tax counts (even the Social Security payroll deductions which pay for welfare don’t count, don’t even get me started . . .). Anyone eligible for our meager welfare programs will have an income too low to owe federal income tax anyway, at least after taking account of antipoverty tax credits (in this sense the “net” part applies). So whether it means all income tax payers or only (Income Tax – Welfare Benefits > 0 ) taxpayers is irrelevant because they’re the same people. Since apparently only 53% of Americans owe income tax after credits, the meaning is thus usually what Chris Bertram is saying, though it is sometimes also meant to be broadly inclusive.

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Trader Joe 11.07.13 at 12:19 pm

Doesn’t this UK usage of “taxpayer” just leave out a step?

Its undoubtedly true that a guy who pays 1 pound and a guy that pays 100,000 pounds are both tax payers. But its not the amount of tax he pays that gives him more influence. Its the other 100,000 pounds he pays to lobbyists, campaign coffers and other vectors of influence that makes his greater “net contribution” to the coffers more valuable. Where exactly that sort of “net taxpayer” becomes influential is open to interpretation.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.07.13 at 12:19 pm

An exxamle of the use of ‘taxpayer’ rhetoric was discussed here a while back – the argument for privatising univ. tuition fees. Why should working class taxpayers subsidise university education? Lots of nasty distortions there, of course (why not make the rich pay more tax then; the working class are the ones who need the grants most, etc; the figures about personal lifetime increment to earnings due to graduate status are pulled out of someone’s arse, and don’t account for actual or possible taxation etc.) but the most relevant here is the focus on consumerist approach to taxation.

When I see those numbers on my payslip, I ask – what am I getting out of this transaction? And don’t fob me off with vague notions of the public good being promoted some time in the future, or the mere contingency that I or my kids might benefit at some point. What am I, a mug? I’m not going to hand over money out of my market-calibrated just deserts without tangible benefits upfront.

Why should I have to pay for fire engines? I’m not on fire. (Mark Steel, HIGNFY)

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novakant 11.07.13 at 2:00 pm

If taxes were only used for education, fire engines and the like we sure wouldn’t have a real problem here. It’s another story if the government blows a couple of trillions on cruel and useless wars and generally feeds the military-industrial-security complex with taxpayer’s money.

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novakant 11.07.13 at 2:04 pm

And let’s not forget the bank bailouts…

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Tim Wilkinson 11.07.13 at 2:31 pm

We already have that problem with education, legal aid, and lots of other things, including the emergency services. If less were spent on the mil-ind-sec complex, there would indeed be more left for other things cet par, but that wouldn’t be the end of the matter for the implacable anti-public sector crowd responsible for this line of propaganda.obust (Though this may not be a very robust instance of cet. par. since we’d be presupposing quite a shift in political power away from the mil-int-sec types, and thus possibly also from other conservative causes like slashing public services.)

My point is not, though, that no-one should dare to question the way public funds are spent, obvs.

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Mao Cheng Ji 11.07.13 at 3:22 pm

“but that wouldn’t be the end of the matter for the implacable anti-public sector crowd”

That is not so obvious to me, as far as the US is concerned (the UK is different). About a half of the federal budget is spent on military. If it was instead spent on medical care, free secondary education, vocational training, etc. – things that actually affect people’s lives – then with the same level of taxation it’d be much more difficult to carry out successful anti-government propaganda.

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Trader Joe 11.07.13 at 3:32 pm

@133
Lets be clear Mao – defense doesn’t account for 50% of the US budget. It accounts for about 50% of the discretionary portion of the budget. As a percentage of the entire budget it has generally been between 20-25% which makes it approximately equal weight with each of SS and Healthcare/medicaid which also each run 20-25%.

I’m not advocating these relationships, just trying to be factual in what they’ve been.

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Mao Cheng Ji 11.07.13 at 4:09 pm

I don’t know what ‘defense’ is, but I remember seeing calculation for the total military spending, direct and indirect, and it was, I believe, about $1.5 trillion/year. About a half of what they spend, slightly less.

136

ZM 11.07.13 at 4:32 pm

Well, it’s a another day, so I hope CB won’t mind if I make just the one comment.

No idea how accurate/reputable this is, but, Mao might be thinking of this maybe??

“On April 17, 2010, Independent Institute analyst Robert Higgs said annual “defense-related spending greatly exceeds the amounts budgeted by the Department of Defense,” presenting FY 2009 data, the most recent figures available.

The official $636.5 billion spent way understated a growing annual total even Higgs can’t fully identify, given enormous black budgets and hidden add-ons, likely totaling hundreds of billions of dollars. What’s known for FY 2009, however, in billions of dollars includes the following:
….
Total: $1,027.5 trillion
….
In fact, with supplemental and hidden add-ons, as well as Pentagon, intelligence, and other unknown amounts, the grand total likely exceeds $1.5 trillion, a figure rising most years while popular needs go begging.

Higgs also cites the unreliability of official numbers. “

http://sjlendman.blogspot.com.au/2011/06/business-of-america-is-war_29.html

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Trader Joe 11.07.13 at 4:48 pm

I took my figures from Obama’s own slide deck on the budget as prepared CBO. Its easy to find.

I’m sure there’s other ways to look at defense that go beyond the official tallies, but even there I can’t see how you get to 50%. SS and healthcare spending have tallied 45% -50% for ages and if military and defense was 50% there would be nothing left. Interest alone is 5-6%.

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Mao Cheng Ji 11.07.13 at 5:18 pm

Well, a big chunk of the debt was incurred during the arms race of the 1980s, and the Iraq war recently, so there you go.

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novakant 11.07.13 at 6:33 pm

The problem isn’t so much that wonderful things could have been achieved with our tax money, but that we are funding terrible things through our tax money and are thus complicit in all sorts of crimes: from mass surveillance to torture and war.

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Trader Joe 11.07.13 at 6:59 pm

@138
Actually $11T of the $17T outstanding has been accumulated in the last 10 years. About half during Bush’s term and half during Obamas.

141

dax 11.08.13 at 12:16 pm

I’d like to hear from those who object to “taxpayer” what they would put in its place. In the UK members of the body politic are “subjects”, aren’t they? That sounds a bit too servile, no? (“We need to be careful with Her Majesty’s subjects’ money.” Doesn’t have much of a ring to it, does it?) It can’t be “voter”, because there are many people who don’t vote. “Possible voter” is lame. “People” and “citizen” include children, and they shouldn’t be included. “Adults” is off (not sure why though). “British people” doesn’t work, not just because it includes children but because it sounds anti-immigrant and then the GB is not the UK anyway, right? “Public purse” doesn’t work because the politican is pretending not to care about money in the abstract but *your* (each and every individual’s) money. So what do you use?

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dax 11.08.13 at 12:24 pm

After not much more reflection, I’d guess I’d go for “the people”. “The people’s money” has a decent ring to it.

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ZM 11.08.13 at 12:28 pm

Ah (tentatively, if I can make another comment?) I think that subjects is the better, because it implies a reciprocal relationship of service between Crown and Subjects (we don’t have lords here, so I’m not sure about them – do they count as subjects or are they peers???) that the parliament should make laws to reenforce. I think including children is fine – the laws should serve children and the elderly too, don’t you think? (Ok no more from me now)

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djr 11.08.13 at 1:00 pm

dax@141: According to my passport I’m a “British Citizen”. See wikipedia for the history, but in short “citizen” has been correct legally for 65 years.

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Katherine 11.08.13 at 8:43 pm

Somewhat relevant to this conversation:

“But by far the worst error we have made as a people is to think ourselves as taxpayers first and citizens second.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/08/poppy-last-time-remembrance-harry-leslie-smith

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ZM 11.08.13 at 9:09 pm

Hope this is ok.

Wikipedia: “On 1 January 1983, upon the coming into force of the British Nationality Act 1981, every Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies became either a British Citizen, British Dependent Territories Citizen or British Overseas Citizen.
Use of the term British subject was discontinued for all persons who fell into these categories, or who had a national citizenship of any other part of the Commonwealth. The category of British subjects now includes only those people formerly known as British subjects without citizenship and people born in Ireland before 1949. In statutes passed before 1 January 1983, however, references to British subjects are interpreted as if they referred to Commonwealth citizens.”

I read the British Nationality Act 1981, to see if it was explicit about the difference between subjects and citizens, and why politicians would choose to cast people as citizens rather than subjects.

I read it start to finish ,until the schedule, and it didn’t spell this choice out at all.

Another Wikipedia article :”Though the term British subject now has a very restrictive statutory definition in the United Kingdom—and it would be incorrect to describe a British citizen as a British subject—the concept of a subject remains in the law, and the terms the Queen’s subjects, Her Majesty’s subjects, etc., remain in use in British legal discourse.[7]”

So in legal discourse people are subjects as well as citizens.

I think it better to identify as a subject with rights to vote, rather than a citizen, because I donot think the law has duties to citizens particularly (it is more a majority rules sort if thing, plus perhaps some inalienable rights, depending on your jurisdiction) – whereas subject implies the Crown and thus the law has duties towards you, that you may seek to fortify through petitions and such. This is my understanding.

147

Jim Buck 11.08.13 at 10:53 pm

Cost-payer, price-payer, profit-taker—are all terms that may need bandying about more. I’m sick of being described as a consumer, by people who produce only bile and vomit.

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Jim Buck 11.08.13 at 10:54 pm

A Price Payer’s Alliance—now that would be a fine thing.

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Manta 11.09.13 at 10:25 am

dax@141
Would replacing “the taxpayer” with “the public purse” change the meaning of the various public debates mentioned by Chris?

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Chaz 11.09.13 at 5:46 pm

Manta, yes it would in many cases. “Public purse” is collective and implies that the money should be put to public use and we’re just deciding which public use is best, while taxpayer is individual and implies that the money’s natural use is for tax cuts.

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Lenny weber 11.09.13 at 9:53 pm

The idea of the working tax payer is a myth! The burden of taxation falls on the employers, the users, the exploiters of labour.
Workers never see what it’s claimed they pay in tax, it’s stopped at source, paid by the employer.
Workers income tax is in reality an *unavoidable, inescapable* tax levied on employers based on how much their employees receive as wages.
When the media refer to the taxpayer, we should realise that it’s the payers of business rates and corporation tax, not us wage and salary slaves.

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semi-librarian 11.12.13 at 11:52 am

In case anyone was still looking for examples in the spirit of the OP, from today’s Guardian: “There are some people who seem to think that the way you reduce the cost of living in this country is for the state to spend more and more taxpayers’ money. It’s as if somehow you measure the compassion of the government by the amount of other people’s money it can spend. At a time when family budgets are tight, it is really worth remembering that this spending comes out of the pockets of the same taxpayers whose living standards we want to see improve.”

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/nov/11/david-cameron-policy-shift-leaner-efficient-state

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