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How tax became a four-letter word

by John Myles

21Alex Himelfarb and Jordan Himelfarb., eds., Tax is Not a Four-Letter Word: A Different Take on Taxes in Canada. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013. 304 pages.

David Stockman, sometime Director of the U.S. Office and Management and Budget under Ronald Reagan, is often credited with articulating the conservative strategy for restraining Leviathan: “Starve the beast.” In other words, cut taxes to create a deficit, thereby forcing program cuts to eliminate the deficits produced by the cuts.

Whatever the origins of the strategy, it is one that, according to the Himelfarbs and numerous contributors to this recent volume, has been strongly embraced by the Harper government. Though there can be many reasons for cutting taxes, the Stockman strategy provides a plausible reading of a Conservative government whose leader has publicly stated that there is no such thing as a “good tax.” It also provides a foretaste of the Conservative platform for the next federal election: more tax cuts.

Across-the-board tax cuts are an effective electoral strategy since, in the short run, they produce only winners; everyone has more money in their pockets. Tax cuts are never introduced alongside a list of the eventual program cuts that will result from the lost revenue, so the “losers” are hidden from view at election time, a point well developed by Hugh Mackenzie and Jim Stanford in their respective contributions to this volume

As the Himelfarbs note, nobody actually likes paying taxes. In the past three decades, however, tax has gone from being an irritant to a four-letter word. In the past, they argue, we accepted taxes as the legitimate price for valued public goods and services, redistribution and new investments in a better future. Now, all political parties construct their platforms so as to avoid being labelled as a “tax-and-spender.” In the 2011 election, the Conservatives promised deep cuts,

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About the Author

John Myles
John Myles is Canada Research Chair and Professor in the Department of Sociology and in the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto.


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