Do taxes fund spending?

by Daniel on September 17, 2021

You wouldn’t have thought that this was a difficult or controversial question. But actually it’s both. It’s controversial because it’s more or less the central battleground for Modern Monetary Theory, and therefore an absolute magnet for bad tempered online debate. And it’s difficult for the same reason that a lot of things are difficult: the question looks like a reasonable one that should admit of a short answer, but that’s because all of the complexity and ambiguity is packed up into the fact that words are used in an ordinary language sense but the statements made with them need to be precise.

There are two possible courses of action in a situation like this. The first is to say either “very few people in this debate are confused about the actual facts, so this is really a dispute about semantics and since I am not in an iron lung, I have better things to do” or, depending on your circumstances, “despite being in this iron lung, I just got a new adult colouring book”, and then get on with your day. This is quite attractive, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for taking it.

But it’s not wholly satisfactory, because although few people actively involved in this controversy are confused, there are a lot of people in general who are confused about the relationship between taxes and spending and who think “taxes fund spending” is an uncontroversial and obviously true statement. And the process of un-confusing them is made a lot more difficult by the unclear semantics. That’s the point (when there is one) of semantic debates : if you have the semantics squared away then when people say dumb or contradictory things then they sound dumb and contradictory, but while the language is confused, they might sound profound or practical.

And so we come to the second course of action, which is “ENDLESS SQUABBLING”. Hurray!
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