There is an old saying that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” The former has long been a topic of anthropological and broader philosophical inquiry. The latter has by contrast largely been overlooked, despite the fact that it is a man-made and thus alterable institution. How might anthropology, as the study of humanity, contribute to an understanding and perhaps even an amelioration of this all-too-human phenomenon of taxation?
In the first few months of each year in the United States, we are temporarily compelled to enter into what we might call a culture of taxation: a culture of forms, credits, receipts, deductions, regulations and corresponding anxieties and confusions to which we grant the succinct name “paying taxes.” As is the case with any culture, we are born into this phenomenon, which upon birth renders us annually indebted to the state. This indebtedness is theoretically founded in services that the state provides to citizens, which are (at least theoretically) the source of debt, which is (also theoretically) paid off through taxation. An intricate cycle of giving, receiving and reciprocity in debt, not unlike the cycle of exchange analyzed by Marcel Mauss in his classic monograph on the gift, has thus developed into a veritable total social phenomenon that afflicts us on an annual basis.
Yet while Mauss’ analysis is fascinating precisely because it reveals the role of obligation in the seemingly voluntary gift, the obligatory component in taxation is already all too apparent. Although the process is completely individualized, the experience of this process produces largely uniform collective emotions. No matter whether you are a self-declared conservative focused on spending cuts or a liberal who believes strongly in government spending, or anywhere else on the political spectrum through which we falsely map political beliefs, it would not seem particularly controversial to state that no one is fond of paying taxes. Even death has suicide: there is no comparable practice in the field of taxes.
In light of this all too apparent obligatory component, the debt-taxation cycle is clearly distinct from the cycle analyzed in The Gift in two core aspects. First, unlike the reciprocity established in even the most antagonistic gift giving, no clear relationship is established in taxation between the giver’s gift and its results. Compared to the all too intimately experienced payment, calculated down to the last penny and removed from one’s account all too suddenly, the benefits derived from that payment are often highly intangible, despite (or precisely because of) the fact that they surround us at every step and are interwoven with our daily life experiences. And second, unlike the solidarity that develops out of the gift cycle, no clear progress develops out of the debt-taxation cycle. One’s gift disappears into a fiscal black hole whose sole product appears to be ever more debt. The most notable products of the current system are thus growing resentment about taxation and rising state debt.
Beyond the Grasping Hand
No scholar has analyzed this resentment (or ressentiment) more closely, or indeed more idiosyncratically, than Peter Sloterdijk. In a series of controversial recent essays, Sloterdijk characterizes compulsory taxation as a relic of pre-democratic thought in the democratic world which must be abandoned. Sloterdijk’s analysis traces four historical modes of and sources of legitimacy for state fiscal appropriation: pillaging, levies, counter-expropriation, and philanthropy, which he argues is the sole sound basis for state fiscal policy today.
Pillaging, where external conquerors forcibly appropriate the conquered’s wealth , constitutes the primary historical mode of state enrichment. Yet it is clearly an obsolete approach in the contemporary world. Levies, Sloterdijk argues, are based in a similarly outdated relationship to the state, wherein subjects are required to show gratitude and obedience to a paternalistic protector and provider: an absolutist relic in today’s world. And counter-expropriation, he argues, draws upon a similarly outdated Marxist tradition of the expropriation of the expropriators. Based in the mistaken idea that all wealth is the product of exploitation, the resulting counter-exploitation fails to resolve real social problems, only producing more such problems. The state kleptocracy that has grown out of these outmoded strains of thought has, through autopoeitic systemic inertia, been decoupled from the needs of citizens whom it nominally serves, producing only constant demands without many clear results. The main result, he argues, is that the wealthiest society in human history is also, ironically, the least satisfied.
Conceiving the modern state as neither a descendant of pre-democratic authoritarianism, nor simply a disguise for the domination of capital, Sloterdijk proposes a re-conceptualization of the democratic state as a political-cum-ethical structure. This ethical component of politics leads him to find hope in his fourth mode of appropriation: philanthropy. For unlike the brutality of pillaging, the absolutist logic of levies, or the paranoiac politics of Marxism, philanthropy is based in a voluntary moral act of giving which fundamentally restructures human relations. Philanthropy not only redistributes from the haves to the have-nots, but also reinforces social solidarity through the act of giving and, in turn, receiving. Sloterdijk thus proposes that the state abandon compulsory taxation, which, as fundamentally paradoxical forced charity, becomes an engine of ressentiment. Instead, he proposes that states rely upon voluntary donations based in philanthropy, or an ethics of the gift.
Such a system, moving from the bureaucratized ritual of required taxes toward voluntary contributions from citizens, would allow democracies to overcome what Sloterdijk calls the stagnation of contemporary political culture. In its place, a culture of the gift would develop in which citizens might rediscover the beauty of giving to one another, recognize the value of their gift in society, and thereby reinforce a disintegrating social solidarity. Drawing upon his idea of anthropotechnics, wherein human beings are self-forming animals and human nature is subject to active manipulation and development, Sloterdijk argues that this new ethics would have a considerably more radical effect upon the collectivity than such self-declared radical proposals as the Communist hypothesis.
Reconsidering the Fiscal Gift
I cannot share Sloterdijk’s optimism about promoting the ethics of the voluntary gift as a basis for fiscal policy, which even he admits is primarily a thought experiment. The notion of running a modern state on donations, although philosophically interesting, would be practically taxing. Nevertheless, a core insight stands true: the compulsory nature of taxation feels anachronistic. On the one hand, the average taxpayer has no idea where one’s tax dollars go: examples of seemingly wasteful spending commonly cited in the media thus lead one to wonder whether this is how one’s payments are spent, while easily forgetting plenty of more obvious everyday benefits funded by our payments. On the other hand, tax payments do not resolve the founding issue of debt: while we pay off our annual debts to the IRS, national debt only continues to grow exponentially. Most agree that cuts need to be made, but no one agrees on what to cut: everyone wants to pay less, but doesn’t want programs that they like to be defunded, thus reproducing debt while bemoaning its growth.
How, then, might Sloterdijk’s proposal be incorporated into practical tax policy? Or how might the common experience of tax disillusionment discussed above be taken into consideration in improving this institution? In a variation on this proposal, I suggest in a similar thought experiment that while taxation should remain mandatory, ballots might be affixed to personal tax returns, so that taxpayers can decide where their funds, or rather their gifts, will be allocated. The results of these ballots, maintaining compulsory taxation yet incorporating philanthropic input, will then determine the federal budget for the next fiscal year.
For example, if you care deeply about the military, you can direct your funds to the military. If you care deeply about social programs, you can direct your funds to social programs. If you benefited from Fulbright-Hays or a similar state-funded educational program, many of which are now under threat, you can direct your funds to said program. The democratization of tax dollars will resolve the two main products of contemporary taxation—resentment and escalating debt—by giving taxpayers input on what matters most to them, while also allowing the nation as a whole to learn through our tax ballots which programs matter most to our citizens. Recognizing that no gift is ever free, this practice would insert choice and a voice into this compulsory payment, thereby reestablishing the relationship between the giver and his or her gift, allowing taxpayers to know and experience the results of their payments. At the same time, it would move beyond the current deadlock on cuts to rationally tame state spending: fiscal legitimacy would be derived from the popular selection of state programs.
Taxation is a system designed by humans which is supposed to serve and benefit fellow humans and society as a whole. We currently vote with ballots for representatives to decide how our tax dollars are used, with the result that these representatives use even more tax dollars arguing about how this money should be spent, often without particularly worthwhile results. Why not vote instead with our tax returns, to collectively determine how our tax dollars are used, leaving representatives to more pressing legislative issues? Just as democracy was the answer to state power beyond control and without accountability, a new fiscal democracy, which allows taxpayers to determine where and how their tax dollars are spent, is an answer to a fiscal state power similarly beyond control and without any apparent accountability. Most importantly, however, it might make the annual experience of paying taxes slightly less painful for us all.
Kevin Carrico is a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology at Cornell University and an incoming postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for East Asian Studies. His research examines majority nationalism and neo-traditionalism in contemporary urban China.