On New Year’s Day my wife and I decided to celebrate the arrival of 2012 by cross-country skiing in Cypress Provincial Park on the North Shore Mountains above West Vancouver. It was cloudy, almost mild, and while conditions were not ideal, it was very fine to start the year out of town and out of doors, surrounded by trees, snow and quiet, and yet only half an hour’s drive from the heart of the city. And as I plodded my way around the trails on Hollyburn Ridge (“glided” isn’t quite the right word to describe my cross-country skiing technique) I couldn’t help thinking that I am lucky to live in a place where there is such beauty, set aside for the use and enjoyment of all of us, so close to my home. And if you want to visit, it’s free.
At home later that day, I read a couple of chapters from the Nelson Mandela book I quoted from on this blog a week or so ago: Conversations with Myself. Not, perhaps, the first book to read if you know nothing about Mandela (A Long Walk to Freedom is his magnificent must-read autobiography.). But if you already know the basic biography, it’s a really wonderful collection of interviews, notebook entries, draft writings and other miscellany that gives you great insight into Nelson Mandela as a person. My copy of this book was borrowed from the Vancouver Public Library. Here is how I obtained it. I found the book in the online VPL catalogue, reserved it and waited a week or so, and when it was available the staff delivered it to my nearest branch, sent me an email to tell me it had arrived, and I picked it up. For free.
Of course neither a park nor a library book is free. Public goods are never free. They cost money. How are they paid for? By taxes.
This is as good a starting point as any for me to say something that’s increasingly been on my mind over the past couple of years. It’s simply this: I think government is not a malevolent dark force, it’s a necessary good. So, too, I believe, are taxes.
Perspective matters. It colours the way we think about things. And attitudes can change behaviour. Nearly two generations ago, Ronald Reagan trained Americans to see government as the source of most of what was wrong about his country. Over time, the same attitude has migrated north. It is surely right to demand accountability from government for the decisions it makes and the money it spends, but to maintain a measure of balance in our outlook, we have to decide how we orient ourselves to that demand. And to see government as inevitably bad and over-bearing and intrusive and irrational is not just wrong in fact, it’s a self-limiting perspective on the possibility of collective human achievement.
Governments make mistakes. Governments overreach. Governments can always do better. But taxes make possible a wide range of programs and services that are essential to our lives. A great deal of what we have achieved is only possible because of government, paid for by taxes. As a community, as a society, and as a country, we are the poorer for our refusal to embrace this reality.
I’m tired of the mantra that taxes are a “necessary evil.” I’m with Oliver Wendell Holmes, when he said, “I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.”
That doesn’t mean I want to pay excessively high taxes. Taxes should spread the burden of the cost of government fairly, not punish ambition, and give people a wide degree of freedom to choose what to do with their money.
We can and should debate whether particular programs and services are needed, and we ought to be diligent to ensure that government spends our tax dollars are efficiently and effectively as possible. But I choose to participate in that debate from a perspective that argues that there are many important goods that can and can only be delivered by government, and paying for them with our taxes is an affirming act through which we contribute to the discharge of our common responsibility for things we hold dear. Like parks. And libraries. Not a task to be begrudged, but something, in principle at least, to be celebrated.