Wealth, Taxes, and Citizenship

I saw this posted on effbook, from these folks.

LUCY PARSONS: “MORE DANGEROUS THAN A THOUSAND RIOTERS”: Eldine Gonzalez Parsons (born c. 1853 – March 7, 1942), described by the Chicago Police Department as “more dangerous than a thousand rioters,” was an American labor organizer and anarchist, born around 1853 in Texas, likely as a slave, to parents of Native American, Black American and Mexican ancestry. In 1871 she married former Confederate soldier Albert Parsons. Forced to flee from Texas by reactions to their interracial marriage, they settled in Chicago, Illinois.

In 1886 her husband, heavily involved in campaigning for the eight-hour day, was arrested, tried and executed on November 11, 1887, by the state of Illinois on charges that he had conspired in the HAYMARKET RIOT — an event which was seen as a political frame-up designed to cripple the 8-hour movement. In 1905 she helped start the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and began editing the Liberator, an anarchist newspaper that supported the IWW in Chicago. She organized the Chicago Hunger Demonstrations in Jan. 1915.

PREDICTING THE WAVE OF SIT-DOWN STRIKES that labor used in the 1930s, Parsons was quoted as saying: “My conception of the strike of the future is not to strike and go out and starve, but to strike and remain in and take possession of the necessary property of production.”

Lucy Parsons is pretty clearly an important person. I love the vague (well, sometimes very not-vague) fear people have and have had about “anarchists”. Generally the people who are terrified of anarchy are the same people who espouse personal liberty, which is pretty much the epitome of irony; the line between libertarianism and anarchism is very thinly drawn – right-wing-nuts tend to be libertarians and left-wing-nuts tend to be anarchists (although there are very left-wing libertarian philosophies (social libertarianism) and there are very right-wing anarchists (those fruitcakes who claim they’ve seceded from whatever country they live in and don’t have to follow civil law)). There are differences between the two ideologies, of course, and I encourage you to study both schools of thought. ANYWAY, Lucy Parsons is clearly someone who made a difference.

What I want to talk about though is the sentiment in the quotation attributed to her here: “Never be deceived that the rich will allow you to vote away their wealth”. I don’t doubt the veracity of that statement one whit. But here’s something I was talking about with #TheTeen, and something I’ve thought about ever since I first started thinking about what I would come to learn is called ‘socialism’ (I was *very* young, for the record).

This is something I struggle with, as a self-proclaimed socialist.Is the accumulation of wealth necessarily a bad thing? Is it right to *try* to vote away wealth? Put another way, is it right to elect a party whose platform is to “take away” their wealth?

One of the things I believe in very strongly is that those who have (whether it’s monetary wealth or other kinds of wealth) have a responsibility to help those who are less wealthy. At its very basic, this is indeed the concept of redistribution of wealth. It is the concept of “enough” – that is to say, if you have enough food to feed your family, you have a responsibility to help those who do not have enough food to feed their families (regardless of the reasons why they may not have enough). One of the problems I encounter when I talk about this is that people have this sense of what they *deserve*.

To “deserve” something is to earn it; to earn punishment or to earn reward (interestingly, the etymology of deserve is from the Latin for’ being entitled to something because of good service’, via Old French deservir). I have a problem with the idea of “deserving” something because of the sense of entitlement. Entitlement means you have a right to something; inherently privileged. When we talk about “deserving” wealth, MOST of us feel we are entitled to it because we’ve worked for it. There are, of course, people who have inherited wealth who may not have busted their rumps at a soul-crushing desk job or who may not have put literal blood, sweat, and tears into their land, their career, their job. Can you argue that people are “entitled” to – that they “deserve” – wealth they’ve been born into? Have they “earned” it?

It’s easy to argue that if you’ve earned your wealth through hard work, you ought to be able to keep it and choose what to do with it. There’s a proviso there, though, and that is the proviso of being a citizen. In order for you to even have the OPTION of being able to earn an income from your work, you are most likely a citizen of some kind (because there are very, very few places on the planet that are actually anarchist collectives or libertarian societies). The *benefit* of being a citizen is that you have the option of being able to keep some of your income, not that you are punished by having to give some of it to your government (taxes). The *benefit* of being enfranchised, in other words, is that you GET TO accumulate wealth. This hasn’t been the case for most of history (unless you come from a tribal culture that values collective wealth) for most of western (and western european-based) civilisation.

Remember that up until the French Revolution, most people didn’t have the option of keeping any of the money they made. There was no “middle class”. You either came from wealth or you were a peasant. You either owned land and had holdings, or you were indentured to those who did. You either owned a business or you lived in poverty. There really was no middle ground. The *benefit* of being an enfranchised citizen is that you *get to* keep some of the wealth you earn, not that you *have to* give some of your wealth up. Too many people think of this backwards.

Too many people think taxes are some kind of punishment. Some kind of punitive measurement instituted by the government to ensure that nobody gets too powerful, and to keep us all in our places (an argument I have heard from proponents of the anti-tax or minimal tax movements). Not only is this a stunning case of paranoia, it’s also ridiculous. You can argue that governments are corrupt (many are); you can argue that governments are not good stewards of public funds (some aren’t); you have the power to change the government. What is NOT a valid argument is that the government doesn’t have “the right” to tax you. Of COURSE the government has the right to tax you. The reason we HAVE an elected, democratic government instead of a monarchy or a dictatorship or any other kind of non-democratic governance model is BECAUSE it is the only way to ensure that the MAJORITY of citizens benefit from being citizens, including, but not limited to, being allowed to own property, being allowed to retain their earnings, being allowed to have basic rights, etc.. I could go on, but hopefully you see where I’m going with this.

Tax is not punishment. If anything, it’s a user fee. A subscription rate. An access fee. A membership payment. If you choose not to pay taxes (that are used to improve the lives of everyone in the country); if you don’t choose to use some of your wealth to make things better for people other than yourself, you don’t *deserve* to be able to drive on municipal, regional, provincial, or federal roads. You don’t *deserve* to have running water and sewage treatment. You don’t *deserve* to be tied in to any utility grids; you don’t *deserve* minimum wage; you don’t *deserve* subsidised oil and gas prices; you don’t *deserve* subsidised food prices; you don’t *deserve* subsidised health care; you don’t *deserve* to enrol your children in public school. If you believe you’re *entitled* to those things, including retained wealth, then you are also responsible to all other citizens of your country to make sure we all have access to those things, even people who, for whatever reason, don’t work as hard as you do.

But back to my original issue – nobody’s saying you can’t retain wealth. Nobody’s saying there’s a limit to how much you can own. You can own ALL OF THE THINGS if you want to. And if you’re a fan of conspicuous consumption and excess, go hard. However, you also have a responsibility, if you believe you are entitled to private ownership, to provide a portion of your earnings to ensure the betterment of all people. Even if you don’t like them. Even if you think they’re lazy. Even if you think they’re immoral. The strength of any community is in how the people who live in that community care for one another.

What gets me is that the some of the people who are most reticent of the idea of redistribution of wealth, at least in North America, are people who claim to be adherents of Judaeo-Christian-Muslim faith. This is mystifying. All three of those religions are ostensibly founded on the practice of charity (in Christian theology, the virtue charity has more to do with your relationship with God; this is separate from the *practice* of charity. Thanks for that little nugget of confusion, Aquinas). “Charity” means love and caring. The practice of charity is the act of giving to the needy. Not just money, either. You are expected to give your time, your expertise, your money, or other goods and services – this is considered to be one of the cornerstones on which a loving, faithful community is built (usually through the synagogue, church, or mosque, but not always). I’ve heard the most vicious, vitriolic rhetoric from people who claim to be faithful, about how they “give to charities” and “donate to the church” but still hold some kid of grudge against the people and groups the church and charities choose to help. I’m not going to go into here how important it is to have a separation of church and state, but there is an argument to be made that IN ADDITION TO donating to charities and your church (which do not, as much as you may want them to, form the government of the society in which you live, if you live in Canada or the US or most of the western world), you ALSO have to contribute to the well-being of all people in your society through your taxes (this also includes you).

So when it comes to ‘voting away someone’s wealth’, I think it’s too easy to dismiss as something a ‘crackpot anarchist’ would say. The problem is that the only reason we as citizens of the country in which we live HAVE wealth is BECAUSE we are enfranchised citizens (and at the time Lucy Parsons said that, she was not, in fact, enfranchised, which is actually, I think, one of the points she was trying to make) and that our DUTY as enfranchised citizens is to ensure the betterment of ALL citizens. So we’re not voting away your wealth; we’re voting in favour of continued enfranchisement, and in so doing we’re agreeing to contribute some of our wealth to the benefit of all citizens.

cenobyte
cenobyte is a writer, editor, blogger, and super genius from Saskatchewan, Canada.

3 Comments

  1. So very lucidly set out: possibly why people in places like Sweden have been able to live with higher taxes, because it benefits all. They still have Swedish billionaires. The state doesn’t take everything, even from the highest earners, even above some maximum cap – because if they did, people get even lazier.

    Communism doesn’t work unless it is the communal living of the early Christians, who expected the Second Coming within their lifetimes. Enlightened self-interest is the only system which sort of works (with some working much harder than others).

    Even Jesus said, ‘The poor you will always have with you.’ Life is unpredictable. You can be poor and ill and have no way to work yourself out of it. Addiction is an illness – they say, and I have no personal experience of, but it seemed a choice in the few people I knew; I have no experience of how hard it it to give up things which you physically crave (except sugar – and that’s been hard enough), and I can never judge anyone except myself, anyway.

    But apart from that, governments should make sure their citizens get and education and healthcare, and don’t face an employment field so full of nepotism and corruption that, again, it is impossible to work your way out of poverty.

    I only resent rich people (spouses, children?) who don’t earn the money they so lavishly spend on themselves. I resent them – I don’t want to take away all their money and put them in jail.

    I like the possibilities I had. We worked through grad school, got jobs and worked hard at them. But I used the benefits I had access to, and wish they at least be available to all.

    As someone who has been disabled for 27 years, I am also glad that there was disability insurance – never expecting to have to use it, I can still remember resenting a little bit that it was taken out of my pay, and justifying it because ‘someone’ might need it. I didn’t expect to be the someone.

    What I REALLY resent is corruption and theft: government officials stealing aid money meant for their poor, jobs going to people with connections as a sinecure (it is estimated a third of the teachers in Mexico fall in that category – I was shocked: they don’t even show up to work!). I hate it that my credit card fees cover theft – because it has been deemed more convenient to just hide that theft than to make it a bit harder to use credit cards for everyone. Stuff like that could pay for everything – just stop the massive wastage. I suppose that part of the cost of complex societies.

    There – enough?

    Somehow my follow went fallow – and it just occurred to me I hadn’t read your blog in a while. I will go now to what I missed.

    1. Early in Puerre Trudeau’s tenure as PM, he appeared in the American news program The Firing Line. He was questioned about bring a socialist because what else do Americans have to be concerned about? He sdmittedhe was a Socialist, but he said “you have to understand what we mean by socialism in Canada. It means that no one gets to have cake until everyone has bread.” What a perfect, simple, understandable definition, and what a better society we would live in if that kind of socialism was actually applied.

      People ten to focus on government corruption and waste, and it is an issue. But let’s not forget just how much corruption, waste and downright crookery exists in the private sector, to the detriment of us all. The Panama Papers are driving that point home.

      Let’s not forget that taxation is in fact the very foundation of a civilized secular society. Anyone who tries to tell you different is either ignorant or lying.

      1. Plenty of corruption in the private sector; the public sector needs to enforce laws they already have on the books. But when the government does it, there is the feeling that you have no appeal. The government needs to police itself (as do doctors and lawyers and police and universities and churches and…).

        I have nothing against taxation – I like bridges. We pay ours every year with punctuality and punctiliousness (taxes, not bridges).

        Just remember that in many countries, becoming the government/president/whatever is an unbelievable license to steal and to put all your friends and relatives in government positions – no wonder they never want to leave power! The gravy train stops.

i make squee noises when you tell me stuff.

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