The Public Humanist

Taxes, My Favorite Social Contract


Every five years Mass Humanities develops a new thematic initiative to focus its priorities for grant making and creating its own programs. Please welcome the latest: Negotiating the Social Contract.

I’ve noticed that the term “Social Contract” does not instantly conjure a clear notion for most. After I say (probably too rapidly) the title of the initiative to a potential grant applicant, there’s often a pause, and then, “What is that exactly?”

It does little to clear things up to note that the term “social contract” originated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 treatise of that title.

But here’s a good way in: at its heart is the central question, “What do we owe each other?”

Here are some more:

  • Does government protect the common good? (and if so, how?)
  • Are individual rights more important than collective well being? Is collective well being more important than individual rights? What would you sacrifice for collective well being?
  • What should people do when they feel that they are not being served by those elected to serve?
  • What are some “contracts” that exist informally, such as those between family members?
  • What are the “we’s” that you belong to? Your neighborhood, family, social class, professional echelon: what are the groups that you feel loyal to? What do you get for your loyalty?

I could go on, but I’ll stop. I will posit the notion that our tax system is one of the most readily identifiable and understood—in the broad strokes, anyway– social contracts. There’s much philosophy buried in the notion of taxation, and in our leaders’ priorities of expenditures, and plenty about today’s system worth examining and thinking about not as an economist, but as a humanist.

Taxes show up quite a bit in the Constitution of Massachusetts, 1780, authored by John Adams, Samuel Adams and James Bowdoin. The most robust reference to taxation is this:

Part the Second, “The Frame of Government,” Chapter I, Section I, Article IV:

And further, full power and authority are hereby given and granted to the said general court from time to time, to make, ordain, and establish all manner of wholesome and reasonable orders, laws, statutes, and ordinances, directions and instructions . . . and to impose and levy proportional and reasonable assessments, rates, and taxes, upon all the inhabitants of, and persons resident, and estates lying, within the said commonwealth; and also to impose and levy reasonable duties and excises upon any produce, goods, wares, merchandise, and commodities whatsoever, brought into, produced, manufactured, or being within the same; to be issued and disposed of by warrant, under the hand of the governor of this commonwealth, for the time being, with the advice and consent of the council, for the public service, in the necessary defence and support of the government of the said commonwealth, and the protection and preservation of the subjects thereof, according to such acts as are or shall be in force within the same.

Clearly it’s stated: residents of the Commonwealth all chip in for services and defense.

For some contemporary context on the complex topic of taxation in the US, I offer the following web sites, selected and described by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s excellent Internet Scout Report, a digest of web resources that they prepare weekly. I include the following with their permission.

Tax Policy Center: TaxVox (taken from The Scout Report 1/21/14)

The Brookings Institution offers comment on topics such as financial restructuring, international relations, and metropolitan policy. Its Tax Policy Center is one of its thematic centers that provides access to white papers, commentaries, data sets and other resources related to this complex subject. This in-house blog, TaxVox, offers up thoughtful musings on the wide world of taxes that will be of note to policy makers and journalists, as well as the general public. Visitors can scan through these posts at their leisure, which include “Taxing Bitcoin” and “Time to Park the Commuter Tax Subsidy.” Additionally, the site contains a search engine and a list of Recent Entries.

National Priorities Project (taken from The Scout Report 11/21/14)

Nominated for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, The National Priorities Project (NPP) has been working for the past 30 years to analyze the American government’s military spending and to promote a national budget that it considers more in alignment with the priorities of everyday citizens. If the progressive politics of the NPP don’t turn you off, this site offers a bounty of information on the way the federal government spends tax dollars. Start with the Federal Budget 101 tab, where you can learn through hour-long webinars on a range of budget related topics. Teachers will especially enjoy the Educator Toolkit, which includes lesson plans and activities on topics such as campaign finance, lobbying, and historic events related to the federal budget.

President Obama’s State of the Union Address – Remarks As Prepared for Delivery (taken from The Scout Report 1/23/15)

In his State of the Union address [on January 20, 2015], President Obama gave an optimistic speech rooted in unapologetically progressive values. He challenged congress to help him make two years of community college free to all students, spoke of the need to tax high earners, and made a case for affordable child care. The president also threatened to veto any congressional measures that might hobble new regulations on Wall Street or the American Affordable Health Care Act, and called on Republicans to “turn the page” and help him move the burgeoning economic recovery toward the good of the middle class. He also vaunted his successes abroad, including reestablishing relations with Cuba and pulling hundreds of thousands of troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, while calling for a concerted effort to address continued difficulties in the Middle East. Responses from politicians across the web has been swift and, unsurprisingly, divided. While Democrats lauded Obama for his strong platform, Sen. Joni Ernst, of Iowa, took the opportunity to call attention to the “message” the electorate had sent in November when they voted in a majority Republican congress. Mitt Romney has also accused the president of being “more interested in politics than in leadership.”

So this tax season, after you’ve filed and gotten that irksome chore behind you, maybe it would be interesting to learn more specifically what you’re getting for your monetary contribution to the well being of your city, your Commonwealth, and your nation.

If you are involved with an organization that would like to examine ideas like these in a public program, please be in touch with us at Mass Humanities.

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