Earlier this week, House Republicans released their budget for the 2016 fiscal year, “A Balanced Budget for a Stronger America.” There is much to criticize in it, including deep cuts to social spending, questionable accounting, increasingly quixotic Obamacare repeal procedures, and disturbing gestures toward more military spending. But the plan is also an ideological document meant to advance a particular set of beliefs about how government should function, and toward what end. Its composition and slick rollout (including an upbeat YouTube presentation, a BuzzFeed-esque gif set, and a highly navigable website complete with rolling documentation of news coverage) are meant not only to advance certain policy measures, but persuade voters to adopt its ideological point of view.
Which is why its use of the term “taxpayer”—though hardly atypical of political documents—is notable. In the 43-page budget, the word “taxpayer” and its permutations appear 24 times, as often as the word “people.” It’s worthwhile to compare these usages, because the terms are, in a sense, rival ideas. While “people” designates the broadest possible public as the subject of a political project, “taxpayer” advances a considerably narrower vision—and that's why we should eliminate it from political rhetoric and punditry.
Though addressing people as “taxpayers” is common enough to appear politically neutral, it tends to carry more argumentative weight than it’s typically credited with. The House budget is full of examples of seemingly straightforward deployments of the term which are, upon closer inspection, clearly furthering a particular ideology. “There are too many scenarios these days in which Washington forgets that its power is derived from the ‘consent of the governed,’” the plan reads in one instance of the term’s use. “It forgets that its financial resources come from hard-working American taxpayers who wake up every day, go to work, actively grow our economy and create real opportunity.” In other words, Americans’ taxes are parallel with taxpayers' consent, suggesting that expenditures that do not correspond to an individual’s will are some kind of affront. The report goes on to argue that
food stamps, public housing assistance, and development grants are judged not on whether they achieve improved health and economic outcomes for the recipients or build a stronger community, but on the size of their budgets. It is time these programs focus on core functions and responsibilities, not just on financial resources. In so doing this budget respects hard-working taxpayers who want to ensure their tax dollars are spent wisely.
Put simply, taxpayers should get what they pay for when it comes to welfare programs, and not be overcharged. But, as the Republican authors of this budget know well, the beneficiaries of welfare programs tend to receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes, because they are in most cases low-income. The “taxpayers” this passage has in mind, therefore, don’t seem to be the recipients of these welfare programs, but rather those who imagine that they personally fund them. By this logic, the public is divided neatly into makers and takers, to borrow the parlance of last election’s Republicans.
Democrats often refer to "taxpayers," too. At 150 pages, the White House budget proposal for 2016 uses the term 26 times, predictably invoking it when referring to cuts and reductions in services. "The Budget includes initiatives to improve the service we provide to the American public; to leverage the Federal Government’s buying power to bring more value and efficiency to how we use taxpayer dollars...," President Barack Obama writes in his introductory message. "The Budget includes proposals to consolidate and reorganize Government agencies to make them leaner and more efficient, and it increases the use of evidence and evaluation to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely on programs that work."
There are countless examples of this reading of “taxpayer” bleeding out of official rheotric and into mainstream political commentary. Consider Megan McArdle’s recent meditation on prison reform in Bloomberg View, in which she points out that “prison is … very expensive,” and therefore, “while we're punishing the criminal, we're also heavily punishing the taxpayer.” Imagining tax payment as a kind of punishment is the upshot to the general use of the term, however innocuously the majority of its speakers may intend it. If money owed in taxes is imagined, as in the budget plan and McArdle’s usage, to belong to the taxpayer, then programs operating off of public revenue do seem to have some obligation to correspond to their funders’ consent, and serving the interests of others does seem unfair. But these are all obfuscations brought on by the term.
The same laws that determine that money deposited into a person’s bank account belongs to that person also determine that taxes owed on that deposit do not. Public revenue is just that: a pool of public money to be used for the good of the public, not 300 million pools of private money each to be used to serve private individuals’ interests. What is in the interest of the public may involve expenditures that can’t be filed in a pay-in-cash-out formula, as the “taxpayer” terminology would suggest. Kids, for example, usually don’t pay taxes whatsoever, but spending on children is a necessary social function. Our roads and public utilities, too, are available to anyone inside our borders, not because they have been purchased, but because strong infrastructure provides for the common good.
Along with wrongly dividing the public into various private interest sets, taxpayer terminology also seems to subtly promote the idea that a person’s share in our democratic governance should depend upon their contribution in taxes. If government should respond to the will of taxpayers because programs are incorrectly supposed to be financed on their dime, then those contributing larger shares would seem to be due greater consideration, like shareholders in a company. (It would also mean that the countless undocumented immigrants who contribute more than $10 billion a year in taxes ought to become voting citizens.) But this view is precisely contrary to the democratic vision invoked in historical verbiage like “consent of the governed,” as it mistakes the source of a person’s rights. Our share in democracy arises not from what we can pay into it, but from the fact that we are persons and personhood confers certain obligations and dues.
Whereas "taxpayers" is strewn throughout political documents, “people” is associated with populist and revolutionary movements, and not for nothing. Power to the people, the evergreen revolutionary slogan trumpeted by popular fronts around the world, has a ring that power to the taxpayers does not precisely because it demands an inclusive view of public goods. The same could be said about the first line of the U.S. Constitution: "We the Taxpayers" would have been an odd construction for a nation born from a revolt against British taxation. So let's leave "taxpayer" to the IRS and remove it from everyday speech. With every thoughtless repetition of the word, we’re carrying political water.