#6: Taxes Should Be Used for Governance, Not Politics

Don't take government spending for granted. It has a cost

Back in my blogging days, I used to run a section called ‘Where Your Taxes Go.’ Whenever I spotted a ridiculous use of our taxes, I would point it out.

Examples included moustache allowances,  educating and rehabilitating monkeys, overpaying for condoms, policing parrots, paying fake municipal employees, golf buggies for the army,  statues for Sardar Patel, Mayawati and a dead farmer, 62 sandstone elephants, and regulating skirt hemlines.

You will note that all parties have been culprits in my list.

Yesterday, I put out a tweet reacting to Arvind Kejriwal’s announcement that taxpayers’ money would be used to send “senior citizens to Ayodhya for Ram Lalla's darshan.” I argued:

If Kejriwal wants to pander to soft Hindutva, he should spend his own money doing so. Not the taxes of people like me.

And then I elaborated:

To be clear, what I am protesting here is the use of public funds.

Kejriwal can do whatever he wants for votes. But use party money or personal money for it. Not public funds.

This drew heated responses, among them the usual Whataboutery of whether I had protested against the use of state funds to send people on the Haj pilgrimage. As it happens, I had done so numerous times, including this post from 14 years ago.

(On issues like taxes and free speech, Whataboutery doesn’t work against me because I have been writing for long enough to have slammed all sides. Besides, as I pointed out here, all Whataboutery is an admission of guilt.)

Anyway, there is a larger point here, which is that we take our tax money for granted. When people advocate government spending, they assume that government spending does not have a cost, and there is an endless supply of money. This is not true. That money has a cost.

It is a moral cost.

The Moral Cost of Taxes

I can sum up my worldview thus: I respect consent and oppose coercion. This leads me to a fundamental truth about political philosophy, summed up in the headline of an old column of mine: Every Act of Government Is an Act of Violence.

Taxes involve coercion. In that column, I had written:

No one pays taxes willingly. Without the threat of imprisonment—basically, abduction by the one entity that has a monopoly on violence—there would be no taxpayers. There are two words that mean the act of taking someone’s property without their consent: no wonder people say that Taxation is Theft.

Indeed, it is more than that. Assume that you pay 25% of your income in taxes. That amounts to one-fourth of your time and labour. It means that, for all practical purposes, from January to March every year, you are a slave to the state. Taxation is not just theft, it is part-time slavery.

Now, this does not mean that I am an anarchist who wants zero taxes and no state. For individual rights to have any meaning, someone has to safeguard them. That’s why we need the state. And the state needs taxes to exist. And so we have the liberal paradox:

In order for our rights to be safeguarded, we first need to allow them to be infringed.

The Central Question of Political Philosophy

The moral cost of taxes is undeniable. The central question of political philosophy then is this: when is this cost justified?

Some argue for a nightwatchman state. Others argue for a welfare state. Some want a state based on a religion or a personality cult. And there are all kinds of variations on all these themes. Every political philosophy lays out some ends, and then argues, implicitly, that these ends justify the means.

I don’t want to take an ideological position here. I just ask that all of us accept that government spending has a cost, and factor that in whenever we demand that our taxes be spent on something. Whether we speak about the police or building highways or a space program or grand statues or pilgrimages for the elderly or moustache allowances, consider the moral cost. None of those come free.

One Thing That All Citizens Can Agree on

While the ideologues fight it out, I know there is one thing that all citizens can agree on: our taxes should be spent on governance, not politics.

The function of taxes should be to make the people of a country better off, and not the political party in charge.

And yet, look around you. You will find that the party in power constantly uses government funds to buy votes and benefit cronies — and this has been normalised.

Every government in power, at the centre or in a state, will spend hundreds of crores of our money in placing government ads in newspapers. In fact, this has become one way of controlling the media. Toe the government line, and the ads flow in. Speak truth to power, and the tap is turned off. Many publications depend on such spending, and are thus being bribed by our money to be government propaganda machines.

In fact, I remember an interview when Kejriwal was asked about the crazy advertising spending by his Delhi government, and he responded with Whataboutery, saying that if Modi does it, why can’t he?

This recent example of Kejriwal courting the Hindutva vote by promising free pilgrimages is another example of chasing a votebank at our expense. (And yes, the Congress did it also with the Haj subsidy.) These days, all politicians promise freebies at the polls, from biryani to televisions, which they intend to pay for with our money.

I once wrote a limerick that summed this up:

A neta who loves currency notes
Told me what his line of work denotes.
‘It is kind of funny.
We steal people’s money
And use some of it to buy their votes.’

So now, at the end of this piece, I have three requests for you:

One, whenever you want the government to spend money on something, consider the moral cost of that spending. There is violence involved.

Two, scrutinise all government spending and ask if it is going towards governance or politics. Will it benefit the citizen or the party in power?

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