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ALL AH WE IS ONE: Taxation without benefits

Tennyson Joseph

ALL AH WE IS ONE: Taxation without benefits

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For over four decades a stable social and economic order had been established in Barbados in which the working population and productive sector were taxed at relatively high rates in exchange for a fairly comprehensive system of social benefits in the areas of education, school meals, public transportation, health care, unemployment benefits and social security, backed by a well-developed trade union movement and parliamentary democracy informed by a Benthamite social-democratic orientation.  

Despite the impact of this comparatively higher regional taxation rate and attendant cost of living on the spending power of the population, there was an unquestionable legitimacy in the state and its actions, given the expectation of direct social benefits to the public.

It was a beautiful trade-off between individual sacrifice and national development, since there was a clear connection between taxes paid and citizens’ sense of government as “doing something”.

This is not to deny that certain sections of the population have historically been hostile to the idea of taxation for the purpose of providing social protection for others.

Particularly, the wealthy who are fully capable of meeting their own costs in education, health and transportation, have always resented the idea of being taxed to facilitate the provision of state-sponsored social services. In the current moment of neo-liberal ideological hegemony, these groups have become arrogantly vocal, and are now demanding that the state either reduces social spending or links spending more directly to “productivity”. (This is bourgeois-speak for “give it all to us and forget the poor”.)

It is in this context therefore that we are witnessing a process in which the principle of taxation is being forcibly divorced from the expectation of any possible direct benefit to the population being taxed. In an environment where people are being forced to pay more and more taxes, they are simultaneously being conditioned to abandon their old expectations of state assistance.

Further compounding the problem of the legitimacy of the tax grab currently under way and which is likely to heighten if the International Monetary Fund prescriptions receive their expected slavish response by the Barbadian state, is the growing failure of the state to fulfil even the most basic of its roles.

Thus, in the same moment when new taxes are being imposed, the newspapers and talk shows are inundated with complaints from the public over the pile-up of garbage, the inordinately long waiting periods for public transport, shortages of basic medicines and equipment at the public hospital, flooding due to clogged drains, and the deterioration of roads and other public infrastructure.

Attractive as the idea of delinking taxation from public expectations might be to neo-liberal ideologues, the continuing failures of the state to fulfil its basic functions will remain a fundamental challenge. Taxing merely to “balance the books” will never be legitimate in the eyes of a suffering public.

• Tennyson Joseph is a political scientist at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus, specialising in regional affairs. Email [email protected]