Taxes and the Common Good

One of the most important parts of the democratic socialist vision for society is the idea of a public good.  Public goods are goods that are available to be enjoyed by all, without having to pay a user fee.  There are plenty of examples from everyday life: roads, parks, libraries, and schools are all treated as public goods in our society, and this is the reason everyone has access to them.  If any of these goods were to be treated as a private good, only available to those who can pay, then we could no longer ensure everyone could use them.  In doing so, we would sacrifice equality for private profit.

Governments are the only institutions that can provide public goods.  How they do this is through taxes: tax revenues are invested in the construction, maintenance, and management of the libraries, schools, roads, and parks that everyone can enjoy.  Because we are all part of a meaningful community that is enriched by these public goods, it is our duty to pay taxes so that these goods can be provided to our community on the basis of equality.  This is true whether that community exists at the city, county, state, or national level.

You don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve lost it—and so it is with taxes: the value of taxes is most obvious when tax revenues come up short and investment in public goods is cut.  Iowa’s current budget situation is an example of this: after losing hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenue thanks to many corporate tax breaks, the Iowa legislature recently cut, among other things, spending on higher education by over $20 million.  Thanks to this drop in state funding, Iowa’s universities now need to charge more in tuition and fees to make up the difference.  This means that Iowa’s public universities have become less public and more private: one’s access to higher education in Iowa now depends more than ever on how much one can pay.

This relinquishing of the common good has come about because our legislature was convinced to cut taxes on corporations, which has cost the state budget hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.  Right-wing arguments for such tax cuts claim that cutting taxes leads to economic growth.  Studies have shown this to be false, but even if it were true, economic growth does not necessarily benefit everyone.  For instance, the gains of the economic growth of the past fifteen years in this country have gone virtually exclusively to the top one percent of income earners.  In fact, this pattern—economic growth for elites and stagnation for the rest of us—has existed since the 1970s.  Unsurprisingly, this time period has also been marked by falling effective tax rates for corporations.  This long-term neoliberal trend of cutting taxes and using lower revenues as an excuse to cut public spending has produced extreme inequality and resulted in a deep neglect of the common good.

Not only is government the only institution that can provide public goods, but governments are among the few institutions in our society that are controlled democratically.  This is no coincidence: when governments are responsive to the needs and demands of their people, they invest effectively in public goods through responsible taxation of the wealthy.  A progressive tax policy like this would also push back against our society’s headlong rush into extreme economic inequality.  When we cut taxes on wealthy corporations and individuals, we are abandoning our commitments to equality and the common good, and we are bound for a more unequal, undemocratic, and unjust society.  Instead, democratic socialists work to preserve and expand public goods, so that all people have access to quality education, healthcare, and other basic goods and services people need to live their lives with security and dignity.


Author: Ben Darr

1 thought on “Taxes and the Common Good”

  1. Excellent piece.

    Would you be able to comment on how the notion of a “public good” relates to the notion of a “commodity”? I know that a lot of right-wing bloggers will resort to the line, “Well, of course, health care is a commodity: it is something that is bought and sold.” They then say that the question we are faced with is which institution will facilitate the exchange: the market or the government.

    Would you say that there is a more fundamental question we, as a society, can and should face: namely, whether something like health care should be a commodity or should be a public good? Is that where the notion of a public good enters the picture, in your way of thinking?

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