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Citizens vs. Taxpayers

Jack Lessenbery
Michigan Radio

I had lunch yesterday with Mark Bernstein, the University of Michigan trustee who flirted with a run for governor next year before deciding not to.

He is smart, funny, and I think genuinely committed to making the university and this state a better place. We were talking about what’s wrong with state government when he said something that suddenly hit me like a revelation.

We were talking about how attitudes have changed, and he said, “I think a big part of it is that instead of seeing ourselves as citizens, we now see ourselves as taxpayers.”


I don’t know why I hadn’t had this Eureka moment before. Bernstein immediately told me the idea wasn’t originally his; it was from an article called “Save Our Public Universities” by Marilynn Robinson in Harper’s Magazine last year.

Taxpayers, as opposed to citizens.

What’s the difference? Simply this: If we see ourselves as citizens, it means that at least in theory, we care about the common good, the community, city, state and nation.

That doesn’t mean citizens can’t think taxes are too high, or question the way their money is being spent or the way the government’s being run.

But a citizen’s values are centered on something higher than themselves. Taxes were vastly higher during World War II, and federal deficit spending was proportionally the highest in our history, but almost nobody questioned this.

Clearly, it was for the common good. But gradually, over the last few decades, we have begun thinking of ourselves not primarily as citizens, but as taxpayers. That’s a profound change.

If we see ourselves as citizens, it means that at least in theory, we care about the common good, the community, city, state and nation.

Think of yourself primarily as a taxpayer, and you see government the way you see groceries in the supermarket. You only want to pay for what you want and need. Don’t have kids? Well, then you couldn’t care less if the store stocks diapers and formula.

We have people who have had their government-subsidized educations, are doing well, but are opposed to raising taxes so that this generation can do the same.

What’s worse, we have been so brainwashed about taxes being evil that some of our legislators have signed an insane pledge not to raise them under any circumstances.

Some lawmakers refuse to raise them even for something that is clearly in their own interest, such as fixing the roads. But even if you aren’t that irrational, if you see yourself primarily as a taxpayer, you are subtly denying that there is a greater good beyond ourselves.

And that’s rather frightening. Baby boomers had parents who took it for granted that America and its schools and infrastructure would be there and were worth investing in.

Most expected their children to have better lives than they did, and most of us did. Somehow we’ve lost that feeling.

Years ago, I was shown a remarkable thing at a huge Internal Revenue Service processing center in Cincinnati. People would send in anonymous envelopes full of cash. Sometimes, they said, they were from people who had cheated on their taxes years before and had a guilty conscience.

But notes with others indicated they were from immigrants who fiercely loved this country and wanted to pay more than asked to for the privilege of living here.

I doubt if they get many of those envelopes any more. And I find that sort of sad.

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