Shirley Tillotson (Dalhousie University, Department of History) presents The Moral Worlds of Fair Taxation: A Perspective From 20th Century Canadian History at McGill today as part of its Fourth Annual Tax Policy Colloquium hosted by Allison Christians. From Marco Garofalo (McGill), Rhetoric as Intellectual Anaesthetic in Tax Politics:
In an echo of Orwell's warnings, Professor Tillotson presents a striking example of the use and misuse of rhetoric in furthering political goals by examining the use of "patriotism" in the development of Canadian taxation. Patriotism served as a ‘moral exhortation’ in the interwar period, as Professor Tilloston puts it, to do one’s part for the national purse.
Professor Tillotson employs as a telling example a noted failure of the federal tax authority to enforce compliance with the tax law on judges in Quebec, on the grounds that exposing judges as tax dodgers would undermine “absolute confidence” in the system just as the government badly needed cash to address the fiscal crisis of the 1930s. The rhetoric ran thus: if people do not have confidence that the judiciary is acting patriotically, then why would they aspire to patriotism? By sweeping non-compliance under the rug and linking taxation with war, the authorities were able to convince people in the 1920s through to the 1940s that paying taxes is patriotic.
These days, we tend not to use the term patriotism to convince the public to comply with tax law. Instead, Professor Tillotson argues, discourse in the late 1950s and early 1960s revolved around different questions: which features are of the tax system are fair, economic, or moral? Deductible mortgage interest payments, child care expense deductions, expense account deductions are examples of policies that were in play. All of these succeeded or failed because they were fair or unfair; economic or uneconomic; or moral or immoral.
The idea of the free-rider is the common denominator in tax reform politics, throughout the time period examined by Professor Tillotson and extending to contemporary tax discourse. Free-riders always have been, and always will be, the object of fiery hate. Words like patriotism and fairness may have elastic definitions, but free-rider is clear: someone who does not pay their fair share. And for some reason, people get really get riled up over other people not paying their fair share.
But a definition of free-rider depends on one’s definition of fairness. Multinationals like GE, Starbucks, Google, or Apple were easily painted as free-riders after media reports that they apparently pay very little taxes anywhere. Many people think that the fair share for these multinationals should be higher. Yet each company points to the other ways in which each contributes to social goals, and each lobbies vigorously for ever more tax reductions by arguing that these reductions would help them contribute even more to society or by falling back on a rhetoric of competitiveness.
Consequently, we will continue to "lob moral molotovs" at each other until we come to some definition of fairness. Maybe, as Orwell suggests, we do not want to find a definition for fairness, because then we will be tied to that definition. Self-interested parties want to continue hijacking this word, and others like it, to their own advantage. A consensus on fairness would put an end to that.
Reading Orwell alerts us to how important it is to pay close attention to the words used in tax policy discourse, and parse through any tax talk that is mired in political spin. Orwell warned that the "invasion of one's mind by ready-made phrases … can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one's brain.” As Professor Tillotson puts it: “[w]e should be able to do better”.