Citizen, Consumer, Taxpayer
Once upon a time, people were subjects of a ruler (in some places, it is still once upon a time). In democracies (or republics) people could be citizens of the state. Crudely put, a subject can be seen as a sort of political property-the subject is subject to the will of the ruler. In contrast, the citizen is a member of a community and has, at least in theory, a vote and a stake in the matters of said community.
In the not so distant past it was common to refer to people in the United States, the UK and other democracies as citizens. However, there was an interesting change in vocabulary in that the term “consumer” began to gradually replace the term “citizen.” This change in terms reflected economic changes-after the second World War the United States (and some other countries) became a consumer country. This change in terms reflected this shift. Whereas once an American was a citizen who was, at least partially, defined by his or her membership in a community, Americans became primarily defined as consumers of economic goods. This resulted in a comparable change in values and virtues and the economic virtues of consumption, ownership, and production became important focuses. As such, it was hardly surprising that after 9/11 Bush said, “I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy.” He did not, as some claim, actually tell people to “go shopping.”
With the rise of the Tea party, there was also another change. While Americans are still referred to as “consumers”, there was (and is) a new emphasis on Americans as taxpayers. While the consumer view of Americans focused on Americans as purchasers of goods and services, the taxpayer view focuses on Americans as payers of taxes (obviously). While the consumer model made a virtue of consumption, the taxpayer model seems to make a virtue of selfishness. The idea, put roughly, is that people should focus primarily on the taxes they pay and what they personally get in return. Whereas a citizen is enjoined to be concerned with the general welfare and to ask “what can I do for my country?” , a taxpayer is told to be self focused and enjoined to ask “what’s in it for me?”
This sort of attitude is, of course, a classic view put forth by various ethical egoists from Glaucon’s unjust man to Thomas Hobbes to Ayn Rand. This view is also the model of what can be considered the dark side of capitalism (selfishness and greed). Not surprisingly, the concern some people express about paying too many or too much taxes is also often accompanied by concerns that tax dollars are being spent on various aid and assistance programs, such as welfare, student loans, and medicare. This is, of course, perfectly consistent with the view that a person is a taxpayer rather than citizen. After all, a citizen is a member of a community and, presumably, has a stake in that community and a fellowship with other members. A taxpayer is, essentially, in an economic relationship of paying taxes and getting (or not getting) goods and services in return. In short, this is a business sort of relationship.
It can, of course, be contended that the taxpayer relationship is the realistic and practical view of the world. After all, as Ayn Rand argued, the way to be happy is to be concerned solely with your own happiness. The altruism needed to be an actual citizen is not compatible with this-it is every man, woman and child for himself. Only a fool would concern himself with others or, god forbid, love her neighbors as herself.