Sunday, November 10, 2013

Rhetoric as Intellectual Anaesthetic in Tax Politics: Guest post by Marco Garofalo

Advocates of tax policy reform use common rhetorical themes to link their preferred policies to desired descriptors. The most common of these are fairness, efficiency, simplification, and competitiveness. Most of the time these terms are used without definition or explanation and they are used indiscriminately to support policy proposals across the political spectrum. This can have a tremendously destructive impact on public discourse over time, as people use these words to mean virtually anything, and then begin to believe these words have no meaning at all.

In his 1946 essay, Politics and the English language, on using "language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought," George Orwell warned that using rhetoric in this sloppy manner ultimately destroys our ability to engage in critical thinking:
[A]n effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
 Orwell argued that political actors use language to deceive their audiences. He writes:
The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. 
Political actors can easily exploit the different meanings of words by using them in vague and imprecise ways. The audience then assumes the word to mean what they think the word means, rather than whatever meaning might have been intended by the speaker. The popular use of the term "a fair tax regime" serves as a ready example. Each person projects their own, everyday understanding of fair onto this word, giving the phrase any number of meanings, probably few of which would survive scrutiny under close examination. Consequently, a political actor announcing a new tax policy can deceive her audience by calling it “a step towards a fair tax regime” without in any way attempting to define what such a regime might require to fulfill principles of fairness.

In a paper presented last month at McGill, Professor Lynne Latulippe presented the use and misuse of the term "competitiveness" in contemporary tax policy. This term, usually bundled with efficiency, frames contemporary tax policy discussions and often hides the fact that generous benefits are intended to be granted to certain political constituents thereunder.

On Monday, Professor Shirley Tillotson from Dalhousie University will add to this discussion by presenting her text, “The moral worlds of fair taxation: a perspective from 20th century Canadian history” at the McGill Tax Policy Colloquium. 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.

Free-riders in action.
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”.

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