The federal Liberal’s attempt to reform the tax system for small business has not exactly been a high point of their time in office.
Taxes are a funny thing. In our elementary and high school civics classes we learned that they were a way of pooling our resources to pay for public services that we all enjoy — things like hospitals, police and libraries.
Paying taxes, we were told, was our civic duty. It was the way we paid our debt to society.
Then we became adults and some of us even decided to run for public office. Suddenly, taxes went from being a civic duty to a necessary evil. An evil, which left unrestrained, could threaten our very existence. Former prime minister Stephen Harper spent most of his career trying to portray taxes as the worst thing to hit society since the plague or the Macarena, famously saying “I don’t believe any taxes are good taxes.”
Things seem to have gotten worse. As the debate has ensued taxes have gone from a necessary evil to a punishment — the equivalent of a fiscal “time out.”
Parents will recognize a “time out.” It’s when you discipline your children by sending them to their room for a specific period that corresponds to their age. A six-year-old would have a six-minute time out and a 10-year-old a 10-minute break.
The problem, according to folks in Ottawa, is that our current tax system does not mete out the punishment fairly. Middle-class taxpayers, the equivalent of Canada’s six-year-olds, are experiencing a 10-minute punishment. Meanwhile, our 10-year old equivalents, rich private corporations, only have to stay in their room for three minutes.
The argument has recently been given a new twist. Taxes have moved from a punishment to a weapon: a way to knock those fat cats with their fancy-pants accountants down a few pegs. It’s a perspective that reminds me more and more of those Marxist-Leninist clubs that existed on our university campuses during my undergraduate years — students who would show up at any public event carrying placards blaring “Make The Rich Pay!” (As an aside, I am convinced that many of these students went on to become bond traders.)
My concern is not with the details of the current debate and it seems likely that both sides will reach some sort of compromise (full disclosure, I am married to a doctor).
But what worries me is the way in which the discussion about taxes has been moving further away from any notion of civic duty or paying a debt to society.
Taxes are not evil, a form of punishment or a weapon. They are a way to address the great need that exists in our country and acknowledge our responsibility toward our fellow citizens. Yet no one seems interested in making that connection.
Part of the fault lies with the government. Far too many instances of squandered money or efforts to bribe voters with their own tax dollars have left a bitter taste in our collective mouth. You could also argue that many haven’t seen immediate results from substantial increases in federal spending and the huge growth in the federal deficit.
But there is a bigger issue. Not all our tax dollars go to help us personally. Depending on where we live, our health, family situation or lifestyle, much of it may go to support folks in other parts of the country — people, causes, projects and regions that many of us might resent paying for. Try knocking on doors during election time and you will get an earful about our tax dollars being wasted on “immigrants,” “lazy welfare bums,” or some faraway megaproject.
It is true that these sentiments have always been there, but they seem to be growing stronger and louder. The idea that there might be any virtue in paying taxes is in danger of being forgotten.
That is a dangerous place for any society. The key to a well-functioning democracy is a sense of unity and shared responsibility. When we stop seeing a homeless person, struggling single mother or opioid addict as a fellow citizen and human being worthy of our care and respect, we have real problems. When we fail to recognize that helping to build a highway on the other side of the Canada, that many of us may never use, still strengthens us as a country, our sense of national unity starts to suffer.
The current debate raises a challenge for us all. Whether we decide that income sprinkling or allowing corporations to make passive investments is good or bad, we need to instill a stronger sense in all Canadians that each of us has a responsibility for the common good.
John Milloy is a former MPP and Ontario Liberal cabinet minister currently serving as the Director of the Centre for Public Ethics and assistant professor of public ethics at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, and the inaugural practitioner in residence in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Political Science department. He is also a lecturer in the University of Waterloo’s Master of Public Service Program. John can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @John_Milloy.