Monday, 27 May 2013

It's not taxpayers' money: it's public money

Author: Sam Wheldon-Bayes

The slogan which famously accompanied the American Revolution, “no taxation without representation”, is at risk of being turned into “no representation without taxation” by the language we use to discuss public economics. It is easy to assume that the language used to discuss economics is neutral, and does not have an effect on the debate itself, but I believe this is not the case. Language is not neutral and contains – whether intentionally or not – inherent biases. We all convey hidden meanings and messages simply by the words we choose in a given situation.

One particularly prominent situation in which this happens, and is potentially harmful, is the use of the term “taxpayers’ money” when referring to government spending. The simple fact is that the money is not taxpayers’ money. It is money that the government holds and uses on behalf of society. It comes from taxpayers, true, but by the time it is being spent by the government it no longer belongs to taxpayers.

The term is now in extremely widespread use. A simple Google search reveals that in the last few days The TimesThe SunThe Guardian,The Daily Mailthe BBC and Sky all used the phrase. It is a rhetorical device generally to make alleged waste of money more personal and offensive. However, I believe that the term implies that those who are not taxpayer’s do not deserve a say in how it is spend. Continually saying “waste of taxpayer’s money” or “value for taxpayers” implies that this is who the money should be spent on behalf of.

When we say we are “wasting taxpayers’ money”, this implies that the act of paying tax ­­­– contributing financially to the state – gives one a greater say in how that money is spent. As soon as the money is handed over to the government, it no longer belongs to the person who paid it. If a supermarket spent a large sum on rebranding, they would not be criticised for “wasting customers’ money”. The shareholders might well criticise them for wasting shareholders’ money, and citizens can (and should, where appropriate) criticise governments for wasting public money. When money is wasted, it seems odd to bemoan the fact that people paying taxes aren’t getting good value – we should instead be worried that the people supposed to be benefitting from the spending are not benefitting as much as they could be.

This might seem like a trivial complaint, yet I believe this trend is part of a wider trend within economics to overvalue financial contributions to society and undervalue non-financial ones. Housewives, househusbands, full-time carers, the disabled, those under the income tax threshold, children, students, the unemployed and many other groups all make significant (if hard to measure) contributions to society, yet by overusing the term “taxpayer” when we really mean “state” we risk excluding them from the discourse on how money is spent. These groups of people all deserve a say in how public money is spent, and all have a right to be annoyed when it is spent badly.

Using “taxpayer’s money” inappropriately is just one example of where language threatens to genuinely affect the issues being discussed. Another recent trend, in the UK at least, is the increasing usage a “strivers” and “skivers” in the debate over levels of benefits. Society is divided into two groups – the “strivers” who strive for a better life, work hard and pay their taxes and the “skivers” a group of lazy benefit dependent slobs sitting around all day leeching off the “strivers”. This is false on many levels. Firstly, most of those on unemployment benefits are there because they can’t find work, not as a conscious lifestyle choice. Secondly, many benefit recipients are those who are poor and in work. Thirdly, more than a few people in work are not the hard-working tax-paying angels the language suggests they are, but are more than willing to avoid both work and taxes wherever possible. The result is that benefit receipt is turned into a more humiliating experience. Those who receive benefits are told that they should feel guilty for being a leech on society, and people paying taxes feel vindicated in setting benefits at cruelly low levels.

These are just two examples of the language being used in economic debates containing biases that begin to shape the debates. I am not suggesting that everyone using these terms is putting forward this message deliberately – quite the opposite. However, we should all be more conscious of how the language used in both the media and general conversation affects subconscious perceptions of the issues at hand. Since almost everyone using the phrase “taxpayer’s money” is not intending to say that someone not paying tax does not deserve a say in how public money is spent, so I would encourage people to gently point out that it’s “public money” where this does crop up.