Some would-be radicals are demanding that rich people and corporations like Starbucks and U2 pay more taxes, and they’re getting noisy about it. I can see why your garden variety liberal might trust the government with U2’s money more than they’d trust U2, but I don’t really get why the out-in-the-street direct-action crowd would waste their time on such silliness.
An author going by the handle “Szmonko” recently addressed my puzzlement in a post titled: “You Can’t Starve the Beast: Why we fight for higher taxes on the rich even though the U.S. government sucks”
Szmonko acknowledges a “tension” between “knowing that the U.S. government has [done] and continues to do a tremendous amount of harm, and believing that we still need to fight like hell for the parts of it that redistribute wealth and strengthen our ability to build up resilient and resistant community.” The question, Szmonko thinks, is this:
How can we move from an understanding that government is bad and we shouldn’t fund it, into an understanding that the parts of the government that are designed to hurt people are bad, and parts of the government that are designed to support people are deeply flawed, but can help us build power toward the world we want?
You will probably notice right away that this is a false dichotomy. The fact that there are parts of the government that are designed to support people and that these parts could be reformed and made better and can even be used as valuable tools in their present form does not contradict the fact that the government is bad and we shouldn’t fund it. Both of these statements can be true, and, indeed, have been true for every repulsive government that has ever been. I’m sure Nazi taxpayers were proud of the kindergartens they purchased along with their concentration camps, for example.
Szmonko looks at the problems we’re having, such as things that make it “harder for poor and working people globally to survive capitalism” and attributes these problems to a shrinking of government. But government has not been shrinking. It has been relentlessly, cancerously growing. Government expenditures have been steadily increasing in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars for decades. If infrastructure is decaying and social services are getting worse while prisons are expanding and the military is extending its global ambitions and Orwellian snoops are reading our email — this isn’t because government is getting smaller under the influence of some supposed right-wing plot to discredit government, but because the government sucks, and when you give it money you get crap in return: the more money, the more crap.
You already know that the government works on behalf of wealthy elites. It socializes their risks and subsidizes their gains; it underwrites their “corporate persons” and their economic transactions; it fights wars on their behalf; it twists the arms of foreign governments to give them free rein to extend their economic empires; its regulations restrict our opportunities, making many parts of the economy off-limits to people of limited means, and forcing most of us to beg to be their employees on their terms; and even its benign-seeming social safety net helps the biggest and wealthiest companies like WalMart get away with offering bargain basement wages and benefits nobody would accept if the government weren’t there to backstop them.
If the government really were about to go out of business, it would be the wealthy elites — including these so-called “anti-government conservatives” — who would be the first to howl. They are not enemies of the government — they depend on it. They wouldn’t last long without it.
Knowing this, why do you want to further empower the government by giving it more money? Do you really imagine that as you force the rich to pay more, you’ll simultaneously be able to force them to cede their power to the rest of us, reform the politicians into noble and good people, and rewrite generations of laws that have been written on behalf of elites — and all of this quickly enough so that this new money the government gets from the rich, thanks to your efforts, doesn’t get spent on the awful crap the government usually spends it on? Good luck with that. How about this: if you think it’ll be so easy, fix the government this year and start taxing the rich next year. Then I won’t be so skeptical.
If I learn tomorrow that the CEO of Oil Slicks and Sweatshops Unlimited has figured out some crafty way to avoid paying any income tax on his $34 gazillion salary, you know what I’m going to think? Good for him!: That’s what I’m going to think. Because I don’t care how many limousines he buys, how many golf rounds he enjoys, how many cigars he lights up with how many $100 bills — he’s not torturing prisoners of war, conducting wars around the world, encircling the globe with military bases, imprisoning millions of people, or blackmailing humanity with the everpresent threat of nuclear holocaust, the way the recipient of such taxes does. I hope he avoids his taxes next year too.
How can you complain about rich people who invest their money in things like “war, prisons, policing, surveillance, immigration detention, and extreme exploitation of the global workforce” and in the same breath demand that the rich pay more federal taxes — which is just another way of investing in exactly the same set of evils?
There are hundreds of organizations that need your support — the government is one of the worst-managed ones with one of the worst returns-on-investment. If you could wrest money from the rich to give to any project you could, you’d be a fool to choose the government. The difference is that the government, unlike other projects, really has the power to wrest the money away. But this violent, coercive power is exactly what we should be setting our sights against, not making alliances with or trying to bargain with! The government’s power to seize money from whom it chooses goes hand in hand with its power to assassinate people with drones, put millions behind bars, extend its empire, wiretap the world, and monopolize the economy. It is a violence and oppression that undergirds the rest of its violence and oppression.
Szmonko also argues:
If the government were providing for more of our needs, more people could focus their energy on organizing. Less people would be afraid to take risks because of tremendous personal debt. We could shift away from being on the defensive.
I don’t find this scenario very likely. Are people more likely or less likely to come together and organize against government corruption and evil if they depend on that same government for their livelihoods? Are people more likely or less likely to be afraid to take risks challenging the government the more dependent on that government they become? Szmonko’s position as a whole is itself a good example of how when people become used to the idea of being provided for by the government they become less willing to resist it and more willing to make excuses for it.
I would extend Szmonko’s advice: Resist the call to shift your focus from building grassroots power either to the non-profit industrial complex or to the government welfare system. Pleading for the government to help us is a project that distracts us from the crucial project of working together and helping each other to build a resilient and resistant community.
Turn your back on the government and its half-hearted social programs. They’re too covered with blood to be supported honorably. Instead of giving your money to the government and then fighting for a bigger slice of it to come back in the support of good causes — give to the good causes directly! Instead of hoping to convince the government to extract more from the rich and wishing for some of it to trickle down to good causes, turn your backs on the government and the rich and turn all of your attention instead to building the economy you want with the people around you.
Do you want more direct grassroots democracy? The Occupy movement showed how it could be done, from the grassroots and not by begging government to reform itself — so put your taxes and your loyalty there! Do you want more support for homeowners suffering foreclosure? Retire their debt yourself via the Strike Debt! project! You want the library to be open longer? Pay your taxes directly there, or use the hours you have stopped using to earn money for the government to operate a library of your own!
What if we were to stop pretending that we can mold the government into something noble and good? What if instead, we embarked on building noble and good institutions of our own and decided to pledge our allegiance (and our resources) to them — the allegiance (and resources) we used to give to the government before we learned that it cannot be supported any longer?