The Ethicist: Taxpayers or Citizens?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the spaces we move through as our days pass and our lives unfold. While we are all familiar with the concept of physical space—the space we navigate as we drive to work, or wheel our shopping carts through Sobey’s—philosophers also draw attention to other kinds of spaces.

There are private spaces, like our living rooms, and friends’ kitchens, where we talk about personal things. There are social spaces, like bars and movie theaters, where we go to have a good time. There are sacred spaces, in churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship, where we try to make sense of our existence, our embodiment and our mortality. For those of us who love books, there are fictional spaces, like Narnia or Hogwarts, that can feel as real as the physical spaces our bodies occupy. And there are public spaces, like libraries, legislatures, law courts and classrooms.

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1748-1825

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1748-1825 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Interestingly, public space is not confined to physical spaces, open to the public, but includes news media (print, online, TV, radio, publications like this), social media (things like Twitter and Facebook), and the communications that politicians at all levels of government have with us when they make speeches, send out brochures or lay out their platforms and ask us to vote for them.

Different rules govern these various spaces, each of which serves a different purpose in our lives—we reveal things about ourselves to close friends that we would not want to see detailed on the front page of the newspaper; we will talk about different things at church than we will in the university classroom (unless, of course, the subject matter is theology). Likewise, the kinds of conversations we have when we are at a bar are likely to be different in content, tone (and volume) than the conversations we have at the library.

My favourite philosopher, Socrates, argues that the conversations we have in public space help us discover the truth about a very important matter: how we ought to live, both as individuals and as members of a community. He presents us with a model of public discourse—the conversation that takes place in public space—which requires us to converse honestly with one another about what we believe, and to see which beliefs stand up to scrutiny because they have the best evidence supporting them. In this conversation, Socrates argues, we should be willing to give up even deeply held beliefs which are shown to be questionable or false. Our concern, he says, should not be to win the argument, but to discover which beliefs we ought to hold, both individually and together.


Public discourse is vitally important, because the kinds of conversations that take place in this space have the capacity to shape how we understand ourselves, our connections and obligations to one another, what we take to be important, and even what we believe to be real. The fact that supporters of different political parties in the United States right now disagree not only about policy (which is a normal occurrence in a healthy democracy), but also about factual claims, and the kind of evidence that supports or refutes them, points to a failure of public discourse to do what Socrates believes that it should, namely, help us converse with one another in such a way that we can have a productive conversation that is responsive to evidence which leads us to the truth about the matters we are discussing.

Because public discourse plays such a powerful role in shaping our attitudes and beliefs, the terms we use in this large conversation are very important. In our current Canadian public discourse, I am concerned that journalists, politicians, think-tank spokespersons and, increasingly, many of us, use the term “taxpayer” as thought it were a synonym of “citizen; or, even worse, use “taxpayer” as if it were a more important concept than “citizen.”

Center Bloc, Canadian Parliament (Photo by Saffron Blaze (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Center Block, Canadian Parliament (Photo by Saffron Blaze, Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

This is a confusion I want to explore today because these two concepts are not synonymous, and because how we describe ourselves in public space shapes how we understand ourselves there as well. That is to say, whether we see ourselves primarily as “citizens” or primarily as “taxpayers” has important implications for the ways in which we relate to one another, what we expect our politicians to do, and what possibilities for our communal life seem reasonable or unreasonable, possible or impossible.

Some political philosophers have argued that any democratic nation state (like the US or Canada) is a kind of imaginary community. And the same is true when we think in smaller geographic units as well: before we can describe ourselves as “Nova Scotians” or “Cape Bretoners,” we have to have a shared sense of what these terms mean, what values and experiences accompany them, and with whom we share our identity as defined by them.

Political philosophers also consider how we should best understand the relationship between individuals and the state. Should we, for example, believe that we are working towards a shared goal? Or should we understand ourselves as individuals pursuing our own particular ends? If we endorse the first view, the state will have an obligation to help facilitate this shared project; if we endorse the second view, the role of the state will be, instead, to ensure that each of us has as much freedom as possible to lead the life we consider to be good.


The concept of “citizen” is broad and far-reaching. It includes both the rights and the responsibilities we have as members of a community. It encompasses everything from our right to health care, education, and legal protections, to our responsibilities to vote, to serve as jurors when called upon and yes, our obligation to pay our fair share of taxes. As a corollary, of course, our elected officials also have a responsibility to be “good citizens” as well: they should see themselves—quite literally—as public servants, whose responsibility is to use shared resources for the common good. This clearly means, in part (but not only), that they should not waste tax revenues.

“Taxpayer,” in contrast, is a smaller, meaner concept. If you think of yourself as a “taxpayer” rather than as a “citizen,” then you are indeed “smart,” as Donald Trump said, to pay no taxes at all, if you can get away with it. Your primary concern becomes not ensuring that tax dollars are used wisely, but to keep as much money as you can in your own pocket. The concept of “taxpayer” carries with it none of the connotations of the mutual responsibilities and shared goals that the concept of “citizenship” embodies. If we see ourselves primarily, or even exclusively, as “taxpayers,” we have reduced our connections with one another in our shared imaginary community to nothing more than an exchange relationship, the kind that exists between buyers and sellers of goods and services. In short, while the concept of “citizen” encompasses the concept of “taxpayer,” the same is not true in reverse: non-citizens can pay taxes, as can non-human entities such as corporations.

Canadian Revenue Agency headquarters, Ottawa. (Photo by Jcart1534 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Canadian Revenue Agency headquarters, Ottawa. (Photo by Jcart1534, Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Of course, all of us want our tax dollars to be used wisely by our politicians, and all of us are legitimately outraged by spending scandals and other kinds corruption. However, if we think of ourselves only as taxpayers, we lose sight of the larger social bonds that connect us to one another in our imaginary community, whether we call that community Cape Breton, Nova Scotia or Canada.

The well-being of this community is the reason why taxes are levied in the first place. The values underpinning this community provide the basis for judging whether particular uses of tax dollars are, indeed, wise. Should tax dollars, for example, be used to build a second berth for cruise ships, a new library or social housing? Since the purpose of good public discourse is to help us answer questions like these, and to answer them together, it matters whether we are engaging in this conversation as “taxpayers” or as “citizens.” If we see ourselves as the former, we will only talk about how much things cost; if we see ourselves as the latter, we will be able to talk about how our community might be improved in both economic and non-economic ways.

Ironically, when we expect our elected officials to treat us as “taxpayers” rather than as “citizens,” we actually expect less of them. We ask that they fill potholes, not buy $16 glasses of orange juice, and not award government contracts to their friends—but we don’t require them to have an honest conversation with us about the kinds of things we might do to make our communities, and the lives of those who live in them, better. For “taxpayers,” every conversation reduces itself to an economic discussion about how much things cost; a conversation between “citizens,” in contrast, can consider not only costs but many other things as well. As “taxpayers,” we are customers exchanging money for goods and services, rather than equal participants engaged in a shared and ongoing project of creating and maintaining a community. And we are diminished as a result.

So, the next time you hear a journalist or a politician talk about “taxpayers,” ask yourself whether this is all that you are and whether the claim being made would be valid if the word “taxpayer” were replaced with the word “citizen.” Donald Trump the “taxpayer” can take pride in paying no taxes for a number of years despite his purportedly enormous wealth. Donald Trump the “citizen” should be ashamed of himself.

Rachel Haliburton


Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. She is working on a book that explores the ethical dimensions of detective fiction.




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