Columns 2007

The common good

As the question of taxes is being raised across the state on many October ballots, it might be interesting to take a look at the term commonwealth. It’s a word used by Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia in their official titles. So what does it mean?

Here’s the formal definition: “Commonwealth is a traditional English term for a political community founded for the common good. Historically it has sometimes been synonymous with ‘republic’. The noun ‘commonwealth’, meaning “public welfare general good or advantage” dates from the 15th century.”

So the founders of some of our most original states believed that the purpose of the state was to address the common good of all people. In order to maintain roads, uphold public safety and address the welfare of the less fortunate, a commonwealth or republic was believed to be the best solution.

Sometimes it seems as though society has done a 180 turn away from that ethos and instead adopted an ethos that seems best expressed by the words, “I’ve got mine and I don’t care if you get yours.”

History is strewn with failed states where the wealthy adopted this ethos only to have it come back to bite them in the butt. You can’t have a society of haves and have-nots without expecting problems. And by problems, I mean revolutions.

Government needs taxes to provide services to all its citizens regardless of wealth or social status. It is meant to be blind in its application of those taxes. So whether or not I have a child in the public school system, my taxes pay for that system. Whether or not I support an endless war in the Middle East, my taxes pay for the military to wage that war. And whether or not I think abstinence only birth control is the dumbest idea ever, under some presidents my taxes went to pay for programs that promulgated that belief.

Here in Alaska, we have been privileged to pretty much dump all our tax needs onto oil companies and their subsidiaries for decades. That was a fun ride while it lasted. But it’s over and we now need to put our grown up pants on and pay for the services our government provides.

Using taxes wisely is not something anyone would argue against. Not wanting to see tax dollars wasted on silly schemes is a no brainer. But the reality is that amidst all the good and needed services provided by government, there will always be that project or program that causes us bewilderment and anger. But those few exceptions do not negate the fact government needs taxes to maintain a civil society. Police, fire, women’s shelters, professional licensing – these are all valid uses of our taxes.

I have heard the argument again and again that, to save tax dollars, government should get out of the business of social services and let private charities and churches take over. Well, to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever stopped any church or non-profit from stepping up and doing more for the poor and needy. But the simple reality is that churches and charities alone cannot bear the burden of assisting the less fortunate.

Society as we know it cannot exist without government and government cannot exist without taxes. Cutting programs rather than raising taxes only goes so far before it becomes lethal. If you are overweight, you can slim down to a healthy size but if you continue to diet, you will eventually become so thin, you will make yourself sick and die. It’s the same with government. We can slim it down only so much before we start cutting into the meat of it. Once we do that, we are killing the very entity that keeps us from becoming an uncivilized rabble of warlords protecting individual bits of turf.

If you want a good example of what happens when government fails, check out any number of countries in the Mideast where the central government is essentially powerless. It’s not pretty.

As Alaskans, we enjoy the privilege of living in one of the greatest states in this country. But it can also be a harsh state. Government helps make life more livable here for all of us.

So when those tax propositions appear on your ballot this fall, before you vote, think long and hard about what life would be like if we starved government to death. It’s time we shake loose from financial dependence on the oil industry and start paying our own way again.