What is it about springtime that makes anti-government types go light-headed? As millions of Canadians from coast to coast were getting ready to celebrate the Victoria Day weekend by opening the cottage, firing up the barbecue, or—er—watching hockey, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation took the opportunity to declare May 14 “Gas Tax Honesty Day.”
Designed to “kick off the summer travel season for Canadian motorists” by reminding us of “the high tax component hidden in the price of gasoline,” this 11th annual holiday consisted—according to CTF propaganda—of “events” across the country. The highlight event was a jamboree down at the Ashbridges Bay Pumping Station in Toronto that featured CTF director Kevin Gaudet engaging in such summer-fun activities as . . . releasing a report on gas taxes . . . and . . . demanding that gas taxes be lowered.
Fun bunch, these libertarians. Anyway, don’t worry if you missed Gas Tax Honesty Day. In just a few weeks, the Fraser Institute will announce its always-anticipated Tax Freedom Day, an annual watershed that marks the moment when Canadians have collectively “paid off the total tax bill imposed on them by government and can finally start working for themselves.”
What these two holidays share is a rhetorical strategy designed to make taxation seem like something fundamentally alien, at odds with the interests of the average person. The underlying message is not that some taxes may be too high, or that the share of taxation may be unevenly distributed. Instead, it is that all taxes are essentially confiscatory, an unfair and probably illegitimate transfer of income to the state from its rightful owner, the private citizen.
It’s all a boatload of nonsense, resting on a mistaken premise that sees the private sector as the producer of wealth, and the public sector as the consumer: what the corporations produceth, the government taxeth away. Except—as University of Toronto philosopher Joseph Heath argues in his excellent new book, Filthy Lucre—it is people who produce and consume wealth. The market and the state merely coordinate—each in their own way—our production and consumption of that wealth. To put the point simply: the market is a device for providing us with private goods, like running shoes and maid services, while the state is there to provide us with public goods—like national defence and weekly garbage pickup.
Listening to the relentlessly shrill right-wing rhetoric, you’d forget that any Canadians ever derived a single benefit from their tax dollars. An especially egregious example of this grumbling was a pre-tax-deadline release from the Fraser Institute in late April, which lamented the fact that today, the average Canadian family spends nearly half its total income on taxes—“more than it spends on food, clothing, and shelter.”
At the heart of the study was an invidious contrast with similar figures from 1961, when Canadians spent barely a third of their total income on taxes. As Niels Veldhuis, the study’s co-author put it: “The tax burden faced by Canadians extends well beyond income tax. When you add up all the taxes Canadians pay to all levels of government, the typical family is sending more of its income to government than it spends on basic necessities.”
Only the Fraser Institute could see it as a bad thing that we spend less of our incomes on basics like food and shelter than we used to. But if it’s invidious contrasts you are after, why look only as far back as 1961? Today, the average North American spends about 10 percent of disposable income on food alone. In 1933 it was more like 25 per cent.
Meanwhile, the study notes, since 1961 the amount that Canadians spend collectively providing ourselves with national defence and other forms of security, health insurance, unemployment insurance, pensions, clean air and water, consumer protection, infrastructure, research and education, and other public goods has skyrocketed, increasing by 1,783 per cent per family.
The tax “burden” was so much lower then, wasn’t it? Sure, but so was life expectancy. Despite what the Fraser Institute wants you to think, this is what is known as progress, and only in the bizarro-world fantasies of anti-tax conservatives could a society where families spend over half their income on private necessities be considered preferable to the one we have today.
As it happens, the closest analogue to stunt holidays like Gas Tax Honest Day and Tax Freedom Day is the culture-jamming festival Buy Nothing Day. Held each November on what is supposedly the busiest shopping day of the year in the U.S., this annual celebration of anti-consumerist values exhorts participants to adopt a lasting lifestyle commitment to consuming less stuff and producing less waste.
Buy Nothing Day doesn’t make a lot of sense either, given the economic truism that for every consumer there must be a corresponding producer. Thus, Buy Nothing Day might as well be called “Earn Nothing Day”—though telling people with bills to pay to skip out on a day of work doesn’t quite have the same power as a rallying cry.
Indeed, with its mix of dopey populism and economic illiteracy, the anti-government right finds itself uncomfortably close to the anti-market left. Both are peddling economic half-truths and outright fallacies in the service of their competing but ultimately mirror-image ideologies.
The main difference of course is that while the left is generally expected to be economically illiterate, the right is supposed to know better. Their brand is economics, you might say. That is why, when it comes to the rhetorical strategies of Canada’s libertarian movement, it is hard to avoid concluding that the deception is deliberate.