“I’ll be taking care of my health, I’ll be taking care of the people of Etobicoke North, and I’ll be taking care of every taxpayer in this city like I always have.”
Thus spake Rob Ford upon his election to his former Council Seat in Ward 2 (Etobicoke North) on Tuesday night. I suppose it seems unsporting to take shots at Ford these days. I wish him all the best as he undergoes his cancer treatments. And, upon Doug Ford’s defeat by John Tory we can all breathe a sigh of relief that perhaps some semblance of sanity might be restored to Toronto politics, whatever remaining ideological agreements we might have.
However, as a member of city Council, Rob Ford remains a figure in our fair municipality, so it is fair to critique his, for lack of a better word, “rhetoric.” Especially when it is a rhetorical shift I see reflected on many levels of local and federal politics. And that is the shift in our language from talking about “citizens” to talking about “tax-payers.” It is a subtle distinction, but one with profound implications for how with think about others, and how we think about our own obligations to our community.
It may seem like these categories of “citizen” and “tax-payers” are simply different terms for the same reality. That is not the case. Let me give you an example. I am a tax-payer. I am not a (Canadian) citizen. My infant daughter who, to the best of my knowledge, has not yet filled out a tax return is a loyal subject of the British crown. These categories matter.
Amanda, simply by virtue of her birth, is entitled to certain rights and privileges of “citizenship” in Canada. Those rights and privileges will remain hers whether she ever pays a penny of income tax or not. The language of politicians and other civil servants serving the interests of “tax-payers”, not citizens, concerns be because it excludes from the social contract those who do not have the economic stability to monetarily contribute to society–the homeless, the working poor, someone on physical disability or unemployment. Are our elected officials not called to serve the public good of all, not just those who pay for the privilege?
To speak of voters as “tax-payers” characterizes our social order as a monetary transaction. I pay my share, I expect my interests to be met by my elected officials! I pay my share to the government … now what is the government going to do for me?
From my perspective, such quid-pro-quo transactional thinking is not only deeply flawed, but it is anathema to the language of “citizenship.” My Canadian citizen daughter is, of course, entitled to certain benefits of citizenship. But citizenship also implies duties, responsibilities, something that we owe to our nation and to one another. According to Canadian Citizenship & Integration such duties include obeying the law, voting in elections, serving on juries, respecting the rights and needs of others in our communities. The reason politicians can get away with the shift to serving only “tax-payers” is that it requires so much less from US. Thinking of ourselves as consumers owed services from our public services as a remittence for our own financial contribution to the government allows us to conveniently ignore the fact that we all share responsibilities for building up the common good. Maybe the government will repay each one of us according to our personal tax contribution. But that’s unlikely. It’s also ok, because that’s not what the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are really about.
On top of all this, what remains to be said is that such transactional, quid-pro-quo thinking is toxic not only to our political well-being, but also to our spiritual well-being. There are no tax-payers in the Kingdom of Heaven. We do not achieve a state of blessing from God by paying our dues of spiritual virtue or good behaviour. Rather, we are made citizens of Heaven through God’s all-encompassing gift of Grace. As citizens of heaven, we are called and challenged to consider not what we are owed from God but what we can give of ourselves back to God and to one another. We are called to give no less than all ourselves. And in giving, we gain more that we can ever ask or imagine.