“A government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.”
~ George Bernard Shaw
“The paramountcy of equitable treatment of all citizens was never to be betrayed. Not any philosophy primer definition of equity, but in the only way it really counts. Equality of consideration without privilege or preference to property or power. Unconscionably that equality was systematically compromised. And with it, any grounds to support the appeals of government for tolerance from the governed. The system simply spun out of control and the fey and feckless that led it could not rein it in.
The Leviathan swallowed the Lilliputians.”
~ On Public Revenues and Private Rights
Jean-Baptiste Colbert once advised a French court that the art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing. Well, the time may have come for some serious hissing.
The Government of Quebec is considering legislation that would make the confidential revenue information of all citizens available to all departments as well as to municipalities so that comparisons can be made of declared income and possession of assets such as homes and land. The Ministry of Revenue estimates that some $50 million in extra tax can be found. Well at least we now have a price tag on our rights.
This measure not only abridges our rights to privacy but also abrogates the foundational principle of presumptive tolerance that underpins our entire system of revenue collection and indeed of our relationship between governors and governed. A tolerance born not of altruism but of expediency, as exchange for the people’s acceptance of, and acquiescence to, flagrantly invasive and fundamentally deceptive rule and regulation.
When our current tax system was implemented it was meant as a temporary measure to finance the Great War. Unfortunately, as with so many money powers, once the state uses it-- it never loses it. Tax policy soon acquired the characteristics of great permanence. Even through our governments failed to complete the necessary enabling legislative constructs to cover inherent legal deficiencies.
Through the roaring twenties, little attention was paid to this growing Balzacian behemoth of bureaucracy. By the thirties we were in a depression, and money had to be raised and spent to establish a core safety net to relieve the misery caused by a society that valued competition over co-operation and contempt over compassion. The taxing authority was used to save the system from itself. In the process it relieved a lot of suffering and helped develop a national consensus that societal support for the vulnerable was a saner way to live. We would all need help at some point.
Today’s problems began with the onset of state social engineering and cultural dictates that followed the post-War boom. Governments began to assume that they knew best in all things. Tax monies were not simply used to provide universal social services but to propel particularist societal strategies. If citizens had tacitly agreed to cede certain natural liberties in exchange for economic benefits from the state so that they would have more time for poetry and passion, they certainly never thought the government would finance or define that poetry and those passions. Now we had to take it and we did not even have the option to leave it.
Program spending, and the taxes to support them, went wild. All form and manner of cultural, social, artistic and athletic endeavour came under state fiat. Politicians discovered the vote-getting appeal of promising something for everyone. The gratuitous diatribe of Huey Long who once shrieked, “We will tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect”, seemed to have become government doctrine. We reached the point where pork barrel spending was twice the defence budget.
The effect on our national will was sad. As one generation followed another hugging the security blanket of economic dependency, we developed smug orthodoxies to justify our addiction to government largesse. We began to willingly cast aside even our capacities for critical thought and grasped at the new hosannas of state faith.
And this pernicious placidity was not only isolated to individuals. Corporations soon got on the bandwagon. Bleating and whining, they flooded our capitals with all manner of rationalizations for state supports. The rationalizations were soon followed by none too subtle threats as well. After all, this was an easier way to win the game. We were soon treated to the annual ritual of corporate executives mouthing platitudes about free markets and laissez-faire economics in front of the cameras, and then turning around behind the closed doors of Parliamentary committees and demanding government interventions and supports.
All this was bad but could be lived with. It could be lived with as long as our revenue and reward system kept faith with one overriding principle. The principle of equity. The paramountcy of equitable treatment of all citizens was never to be betrayed. Not any philosophy primer definition of equity, but in the only way it really counts. Equality of consideration without privilege or preference to property or power.
Unconscionably that equality was systematically compromised. And with it, any grounds to support the appeals of government for tolerance from the governed. The system simply spun out of control and the fey and feckless that led it could not rein it in. The Leviathan swallowed the Lilliputians.
In the past twenty-five years alone our tax codes have more than doubled in size. In addition to new schemes of taxation, the single biggest cause was the ability of special interests to get sponsorship loophole laws applicable only to particular companies, sectors or economic classes. With this has come an arrogance of attitude that must make us all question whether our suffrage truly assures us of sovereignty over our democratically elected representatives.
We have witnessed corporations being allowed to transfer dozens of subsidiaries and affiliates to offshore tax havens even though the mind and management of those entities remained in Canada. We have stood by as private fortunes received state sanction to transfer billions of dollars out of domestic coffers in order to achieve retroactive fiscal benefits. We have remained mute as more money poured out of state treasuries in business grants and subventions than was used for U.I., welfare and pensions combined in some years.
Prime Minister Martin said in his first budget that the government might have lost the moral authority to govern due to the fiscal failures of the previous administration. What can we say to the hype and hypocrisy that surrounds us today?
While great numbers of our gainfully employed are working poor with no more than two weeks salary to their names suffering huge deductions at source that kick in at pitifully low levels, many of our rich pay no tax at all by utilizing fiscal shelters and financial manoeuvres unavailable to the vast majority of Canadians who have no disposable or discretionary income. While small businesses that create eighty per cent of new jobs have a hard time getting bank or government credit and suffocate under stifling tax rate policies and tax reporting procedures, some thirty per cent of large corporations that made profits last year paid no tax yet benefited from government largesse. While almost twice the numbers of our able-bodied workers who collect unemployment insurance have given up looking for work and have exhausted their U.I. benefits, governments grab pension and U.I. surpluses and throw those monies into the general accounts.
We have built a society of wealth but one that provides only a thin veneer of affluence.
Our tax system is singularly responsible for the economic dwarfism of Canadians only five per cent of whom have a net worth of five thousand dollars or more. It must also bear the blame for allowing an unprecedented concentration of wealth where some four per cent of our population controls eighty per cent of this country’s assets. In 1929 the same eighty per cent was controlled by twenty per cent of our people. Clearly the aims of our core social security policies, so badly needed today as yesterday, founded on the notion of a more equitable redress of economic benefit, have been undermined by a tax system geared to raising money to support non-essential vote-getting programs and corporate welfare hand-outs.
Our governments have not kept faith with the people. They have rent asunder any notion of equity and replaced it with expediency. In Quebec however it may be worse than in the rest of the country.
While we all suffer under the entitlement policies of the federal Tax Codes, the enforcement powers in Quebec border on the draconian. Aside from the privacy infringements of the new information sharing proposals, we have lived through a year that has seen Quebec’s Revenue Department utilize over a dozen police cruisers to invade five restaurants in broad daylight and seize their cash registers because of suspicions that they were using zappers. Quebec has not seen coercive measures of this nature since Duplessis.
While all Canadians have been drafted to be tax collectors under the GST Provisions, in Quebec, citizens are now forced to become Stalinist informers having to file monthly reports on any subcontractors they use. The information is then used to track the sales tax remittances of the subcontractors. This has hit small businesspeople in the textile and construction industries particularly hard because the penalty for forgetting to file a monthly report is $2500.
Quebec Revenue has begun to use seizures on bank accounts with alarming regularity even for small amounts owed. The prejudice caused to credit reputations and banking relationships is rarely taken into account.
Bureaucrats will tell you that they can exercise all these powers under the broad sweep of the infamous Sec.15 of the tax law. However they often ignore a very important point. Since the introduction of the Canadian and Quebec Charters of Rights and Freedoms all legislation is subject to the principles of “...fundamental justice…”. Jurisprudence has defined this to mean that due process must be followed at every stage of the enforcement process. This means the application of proper notice and equitable procedure among other requirements.
But how can we have fundamental justice and due process manifested when they are both based on terms of equity. Without equality of consideration as its guiding spirit the system itself is doomed to fail the ordinary citizen.
While the privileged and powerful have the aid of lawyers and accountants to take full effect of legal delay and derogation, workers and small businesspeople feel the full brunt of a system unchecked by restraint of consequence. Let us never become so falsely pious as to forget that many of today’s laws are merely limitations placed by those in power who profited from a yesteryear when these laws did not exist and now seek to protect their own gains by limiting access for others.
If state authorities cannot catch enforce laws and collect revenues under rules that protect the majority of law-abiding citizens so be it. As with capital punishment, far better to let five guilty men live than to execute one innocent. We must not allow the reach of the state to extend like monstrous, serpentine tentacles suffocating all breath out of our conscience.
No crime is as heinous that that of unrestricted government power. No threat to our public security is as grave as the ability of unseen forces to intrude into our lives. No fear is more paralysing to the commonweal than the possibility of violation of our most sacred trusts by officials of the state who shield themselves behind screens of legislative immunity.
It is the unfortunate history of man that even slight abuses of the authority of the state lead, imperceptibly at first, and torrentially later, to the abridgment of basic freedoms. Beyond that, there is the more subtle and immeasurable effect upon those who tend to adhere to the most uncontroversial views and associations in order to avoid any governmental oversight and inquiry. This shrivelling of the spirit of our land condemns the state to direct culpability because of its initiations of these reactions through the release of the virus of fear into our body politic.
The greatest danger to our free society lurks in the insidious encroachment by zealous bureaucrats operating without understanding or guidance from compassionate authority.
No tax avoider, criminal or political subversive does as much damage to the fabric of our society and the quality of our national character as the methods employed by government to enforce its perceived entitlements.
We have, as free people, the inherent right to be let alone. The paramountcy of the right of privacy is sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit but always foundational for the protection of freedom of conscience and the dignity of the individual. Its continued compromise will lead to an atmosphere antagonistic to a climate of tolerance for unorthodox ways of life and the free communication of ideas so vital to a democracy.
The state must always be reminded that it is the servant of the people, not the all-powerful being that can require the citizen to do it’s bidding or suffer the consequences. Our laws, and the regulations that enforce them, must be motivated by the overriding principle that society exists only to aid the fullest individual achievement of which its members are capable. The starting point must always be the individual, never the collective.
Canadians have in recent years been subject to the tendency to suffer through extreme ordinances and statutes whether in criminal justice, domestic security or revenue collection. Many of our rights, particularly that of privacy, have been sacrificed for the supposed necessity of the conduct of the processes of government and protection from foreign threats. In fact these have been, with rare exceptions, mere excuses for greater tax collection, career advancements and political revenge.
The risk, the great and agonizing danger in our system, is that our citizens get caught in a treadmill. While seeking elusive administrative and legal remedies against prejudices they have suffered, their constitutional rights are compromised by the intolerably long process of legal procedures. Relief often comes too late. The system implodes from its own weight. We are in danger of allowing the administration of government to be, in the words of Viscount Buckmaster, “…a mystery to the uninitiated and a snare to the unwary…”
The right to be let alone is the beginning of all freedom. If we have to live our lives weighing every action, every communication, every scrap of paper, wondering what agents of the state might find out about it, what we have forgotten, how they would analyse it, judge it, tamper with it, and somehow use it to our detriment, we are not truly free.
We can survive without the funding of dance festivals and cooking weeks and boating regattas. We can succeed without corporate handouts. We can conduct our lives without cultural and societal dictates from the state. We can organize ourselves successfully without a bureaucracy bigger than California’s for a population one-fifth the size.
What we should never abide is the loss of personal dignity. What we must never acquiesce to is the subornation of our inherent supremacy as individuals to the whims of the state. What we can never acknowledge as possible is the co-opting of our national will to complicity with an assault on our own rights. What we will never accept as legitimate is the notion that our status as free citizens is negotiable to the corporate interests of bureaucratic tyranny.
Though we are a society of laws and not of men we must keep our sense of outrage and steel the courage of our resolve to act on Gandhi’s injunction that,
“When bad men make bad laws and when unprincipled officials compromise good ones, then it is time to be a man and to exercise responsible agitation to prevent governments from staggering drunkenly from wrong to wrong in order to preserve their own immortality.”