Coming as I do from Ireland, and being born at a critical time that means I remember a time before the economic boom and church paedophilia scandals, I was part of a generation of schoolchildren that were probably the last to enjoy a primary education that was dictated by the Catholic Church. Religion was a large part of my education from the ages of 4-12, which involved at least an hour per school day saying prayers and learning about Jesus and how great he was. This is a level of indoctrination that would be mocked if we heard about something similar happening in North Korea, but back then it was part of life and it didn’t seem like anything strange at all. In the separation of Church and State during the process of Irish Independence, somehow the Church had been given control of the nation’s children, which is intuitive, as the Church works for Jesus, and there was no better man.
These daily religious lessons focussed mostly on Jesus and his travels, with a lesson to be learned from each story about how to live in society and function as a reasonable person. One of the stories I remember most from my tenure as an Irish primary school pupil was the story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector who learns from Jesus that there is more to life than collecting taxes. Basically, people in a town get pissed off with Zacchaeus taking all their money and chase him up a tree. Jesus comes and saves the day before the taxman presumably gets lynched by the angry crowd. It’s unclear to me to this day precisely why Zacchaeus was the bad guy in this situation, and apart from some very obvious anti-Semitic undertones there is little substance to the parable. It did make me think at the time that a tax collector was obviously a bad person, since Jesus had to help him out and set him on his path. This conflicted with everyday life of course, as tax men were a part of normal life, and it didn’t seem like there was anything wrong with their choice of profession.
This attitude towards taxmen, and taxation in general, has been pretty consistent throughout history: taxes were bad, and all tax collectors were greedy men who were basically stealing your money. Zacchaeus would have been working for Herods precursor of the modern Israeli State, which was itself a Prefecture of the Roman Empire, and the taxes collected would only be sent up to fund the ruling regime, to either reinforce their rule or fund a war. The Roman Empire was funded by expansion, and the crippling taxation of conquered territories. Citizens of Rome itself were only taxed heavily as a last resort, as any emperor knew that this was political (and literal) suicide: the population would see the taxes as unjust and rise up. This attitude towards taxation continued through the middle ages: the Crusades were a nightmare for the ruling classes due to the issue of raising revenue to fund their voyages. The legends of Robin Hood and William Tell, about outlaws who fight the injustice of taxation, both originate from this time period. A fundamental issue in all of these examples is that the taxes were being used for the same thing: foreign military campaigns. There were no real state services provided, so therefore the average person did not benefit from paying the government tax.
Governments couldn’t keep doing this forever, and the Enlightenment brought with it more social consciousness, and from this we have the ‘welfare state’, where the governments of most developed countries have obligations to provide support and services for the majority of their citizens, to be funded through taxation. Taxation therefore became less controversial, since people could actually see where their taxes were going, rather than being spent killing pesky foreigners or entrenching the power base of local elites. Taxes helped the poor, the sick, the elderly, and therefore there was no need for Robin Hood anymore since the rich were required by law to give to the poor. The state was therefore the protector, looking after its citizens the best it could by spending a portion of everyones income in the most efficient and fair way possible.
At this point there seems to have come a historic moment in the history of taxation: taxes were an accepted, inevitable, fixed and immovable part of everyday life. If you live in a country, you owe the government money, there is a portion of your income that are designated as ‘tax dollars’. You have no control over how high the tax is (despite what political parties say come election time), and you have no control over where it is spent, you just have to trust that the government spends it wisely. In economic theory terms, the debate/discussion about taxation subsequently now shifts from the cost of taxation (how much tax a person pays), to the opportunity cost of taxation (what the tax revenue is used for, instead of a list of alternative things that it could be used for).
This is why in the media (more than likely due to pressure from politicians) of many Western European countries, stories focus on demonising those who indulge in ‘benefit fraud’: receiving social welfare payments that they aren’t entitled to. This type of story is extremely emotive to the average tax payer, as they feel they are working just to fund thieves and liars, whereas the ideal of the welfare state gives the average taxpayer the idea that a portion of their income goes towards helping those less fortunate. Since the poor government doesn’t have the resources available to check on each and every welfare claim, it is helpless: it must fund the fraudsters, and trust that they will eventually become more honest. This martyrdom is then used by governments at national budget time to explain why certain funding and projects fail to materialise. The basic line spun by the government is that they could build the perfect society, and give their citizens everything they wanted, if it wasn’t for some very bad people who don’t play by the rules.
This is obviously complete rubbish, as any elementary probing of welfare statistics will reveal that benefit fraud is completely negligible in comparison to the overall government budget, tax breaks given to foreign companies and subsidies to certain politically relevant industries. I believe it hits a nerve with people however, as the idea of helping those less vulnerable with a portion of your paycheck is something that most can appreciate, and to see that abused is deeply maddening. This idea of the opportunity cost of taxation, that spending taxes on one thing automatically deprived other areas of funding was ultimately used against Western European governments recently, during anti-austerity protests that questioned why banks deserved tax-funded bailouts rather than the money being put back into the pockets of a populace barely making ends meet. The recent Hypotopia project in Vienna was a great example of this, as it showed that the tax money spent on bailing out one bank could have funded the construction of an entire city with over 100,000 inhabitants. The problem was that it was simply regurgitating the bullshit of modern governments (that anything is possible if people don’t abuse the system and people leave authorities alone to spend taxes wisely) back to them, and obviously they all know it’s just not true.
I’m not anti-government, anti-taxation or even anti-politician. My one main criticism of modern politicians is not that they break their promises, but that they promise they can change anything at all. In modern Western democracies, politicians at any level are quite powerless to affect change in any shape or form. We elect them, they wade through committees, legislatures and interest groups for a few years without achieving anything, and are then sent back to the baying masses to ask for a few more years of the same. They basically exist to take shit from people. Yet somehow, in the past century or so they, along with the media, have discovered a way to deflect any of the blame historically associated with tax collecting, and have instead directed this blame and scorn on some of the most vulnerable and disorganised members of society. Nowadays people look down on those receiving welfare, as if there is something to be ashamed of, as if everyone receiving benefits is lying in some way to receive special treatment without earning it. It’s a canny trick, as now the modern tax collector, and their government bosses are safe, while the modern Zacchaeus is simply someone who is long-term unemployed. By demonising potential benefit fraudsters, we are simply buying into the governments lie that they could have done better with spending our tax money, which in turn is something they have convinced us is an inevitable fact of life. Historically speaking, it is quite profound.