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Poor governance erodes the public’s faith in the institution

There’s nothing like tax season – income tax filing, property taxes notices – to bring out your inner libertarian. It’s one of the many times we hate governments, but the timing also lends itself to thinking about why it is we pay taxes.

Libertarians would argue taxation is theft. From a certain perspective, it is. You either pay your taxes or risk having your property and your liberty stolen from you by the state. That’s true whether you don’t believe in the state or if you simply object to how some of your money is used (you may see the constant waste, entitlement and poor decision-making, for instance).

The big-picture view would take in a debate between the free-market libertarianism of philosopher Robert Nozick, for example, and The Social Contract of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Where politics are involved, there are plenty of reasons to be upset about paying taxes: governments of all stripes waste considerable amounts of our money. Incompetence, patronage, graft and outright theft still exist. From ORNGE and the gas plants to municipal hiring and the LRT, from robocalls to the endless stream of federal propaganda spending, there are no shortages of examples at all levels of government.

In looking at those kinds of expenditures, paying your taxes becomes hard to stomach.

That said, the bulk of the tax money collected by governments goes into providing us with services. From roads and bridges to health care and education, these are things we opt to pay for collectively. That’s not the kind of thing we hear from politicians, especially those in never-ending election mode where the goal is one-upmanship.

The reality is we need to pay taxes. Even the most extreme libertarians see some kind of state function, typically for policing, the legal system and national defence – all of which require taxation.

Taxes allow us to pool our resources so that we can afford to have things that would be impossible if we had to pay as individuals. If only those families with kids currently in school paid for the education system, for instance, the costs would be prohibitive. Multiply that by a host of government services, and it’s clear that we’re better off acting collectively.

Too often, however, “tax” is used as a dirty word in political debates. Each of us feels overburdened by taxes, and there’s some merit in that. Each of us can find examples of programs and services we’d rather not fund, making it easy to gripe about wasted tax money. Truth is, we’re generally much better off for what our tax dollars buy us.

That’s not to say things can’t be improved. Plenty of our money is genuinely wasted and funnelled into the wrong pockets. And politicians must be disabused of the notion that taxpayers are a bottomless well. That’s especially true given the huge infrastructure deficit, the funding for which has been given short shrift … other than lip service.

Hundreds of billions will be needed to repair and replace crumbling water systems, bridges, electrical grids and a host of other hard services we take for granted. That means more of our tax dollars will have to be directed that way at a time when an aging population will be demanding ever-more health-care and related services. Tough decisions are coming, the kind we’ll have to keep in mind while reviewing both spending and tax policy. We’re going to need more, not less money. Some programs will have to go. New spending plans may have to be scrapped. And, most importantly, tax giveaways and the shifting of the tax burden to individuals, largely in the middle class, will have to stop.

There’s one big problem, however: we don’t trust politicians. We don’t trust them with our money. We don’t trust them to be ethical. We don’t trust them to do what’s right for us. In that vein, surveys find that most of us – at times 95 per cent – feel politicians are disconnected from the wants, needs and goals of average Canadians. Not surprisingly, such polls find the majority of us don’t trust elected officials. And, in keeping with this thread, most of us feel we’re paying too much for too little, not getting value in return for our taxes.

Yes, we expect much from our government, all the while not trusting that they’ll do actually do it. At least not without making a mess and lining their own pockets at our expense.

Therein lies a conundrum. Nobody appreciates paying taxes, but we do enjoy what the taxes bring us. We want all kinds of services, so we have to pay for them. Reasonable people recognize that fact. But what we want to see is good value for our money, which means focusing on what’s essential, and not using our money to benefit a few. By that I don’t mean just outright corruption and financial boondoggles – though we don’t want those either – but jacking our taxes simply to pay more to themselves and the wider public sector or spending on their own pet projects, not on what the public wants.

Such misuse of funds – clearly on display from local municipalities and the region right on up through the provincial and federal governments – not only destroy faith in governments, but add valid ammunition to ideologues who would smother governance and regulation for the benefit of those who already make out like bandits under the current unfair system.

Every time there is no accountability for corrupt and incompetent governance, we move one step closer to yet more of those very things.

Politicians – complicit, ignorant and bits of both – are quite happy to go on promising us the world, while simultaneously claiming to reduce taxes … and to be fair and honest. We know all of that’s a fairytale, yet we do nothing about it, even at election time. Like we know we should eat better and get to the gym, we’re sure we deserve better. But it’s easier to sit on the couch while the weight gets packed on … and the opportunists are clearing out the rest of the house.

Still, we’ll pay our taxes, grumbling all the way. Knowing full well the public good ain’t what it used to be.

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