Citizens, Voting, and Paying the Government's Bills

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

I have been in Sweden for the past few days, attending a conference in the beautiful university town of Umea, which is about 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle.  The conference, "The Fiscal State and Social Citizenship -- Theorizing Taxation from Socio-Cultural Perspectives," was organized by Asa Gunnarsson, a professor at Umea University, and Lotta Bjorklund Larsen, an anthrolopogist who holds a research position at Linkoping University in the south of Sweden.  (There are, of course, several diacritical marks missing from the various names of people and places in the previous two sentences.)  All nine papers/presentations at the conference have been fascinating, and I hope that I might some day be able to write posts about a large number of the presentations.  Today, partly because of jet lag, I will limit myself to a few brief thoughts inspired by one small aspect of a paper by Asa Karlsson-Sjogren (still more diacritical marks omitted): "Common Sense and the Honest Swedish Taxpayer."

The paper presents a historical perspective on the emergence of the modern state.  Although Karlsson-Sjogren focused on a number of interrelated issues, I was interested in particular in her description of the importance of paying taxes as a prerequisite for voting, as European countries (and their former colonies) adopted democratic political systems in the 18th and 19th centuries.  We know, for example, that in the early years of the United States, the franchise was typically limited (de jure or de facto) to propertied, free (white) men.  Karlsson-Sjogren suggests that Sweden (and other countries) originally used the notion of paying taxes as a threshold requirement in determining a citizen's eligibility to vote.  The idea was that the citizen did not have the right to tell the government what to do (including saying who should serve in that government) unless he was helping to pay the bills.  The government was thus effectively a management team that the owners of the country/company had hired.

There is, of course, a great deal of intuitive appeal to this idea.  It is practically a cliche for an aggrieved citizen dealing with an unresponsive government functionary to say, "Hey, I pay your salary!"  But this, in turn, can be taken to absurd extremes.  The most obvious example is the Republicans in the U.S. who say (quite incorrectly) that only 47% of Americans pay taxes, and thus that the non-taxpayers are mooching from the people who are paying for government.  Former Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann (and others) even claimed that everyone should have to pay at least $1 every year in taxes, so that everyone would have "skin in the game."

Again, the factual predicate of the claim is false: With only the most random exceptions, everyone in the United States (including, of course, illegal immigrants) does, in fact, pay taxes.  Even so, the visceral appeal of the claim appears to be based rather directly on the idea that only people who pay should be able to vote.  Karlsson-Sjogren suggested that some of the early voting rules pretty much amounted to one-dollar/one-vote systems.  The logic of ownership, after all, ties rather directly into a belief that paying taxes should not be merely a threshold to voting, but that the amount that one pays should directly determine the degree of influence that one can exercise.  (Karlsson-Sjogren was not, I should emphasize, making that as a normative claim.  She was providing a historical description.)

This is one of the reasons that, I suspect, most people intuitively feel more comfortable with the now-standard notion that citizenship brings with it the right to vote.  One can back that up with the idea that even people who do not owe taxes in any given year will pay over the course of their lifetimes, or that they indirectly contribute by working in enterprises that contribute to the economic prosperity of the country, but that approach inappropriately treats the right to vote as derivative of economic production.  Because voting allows citizens to participate in the making of all of the rules of a society, we should treat the legitimacy of government as being based on the universal franchise, at least as a first principle.  (Limitations in terms of age, mental status, and so on are important secondary matters.)

In that regard, one bit of good news from the paper is that it reminds us how far we have come.  Although we rightly worry about the corrupting influence of big money in politics, the very basis of that worry is that allowing such influence really does represent a deviation from the proper baseline.  This requires those who pour their money into Super-PAC funds, and similar purchases of influence, at least to pretend that they are not violating the core principle.  Even when that core principle is honored in the breach, it is difficult to believe that we would be better off simply throwing off all pretense and allowing government to be openly for sale.