Ethical Assertions vs. Statements of Fact

Earlier this summer, those of us living in Ontario suffered through a provincial election campaign filled with attack ads, ad hominem critiques, anger, angst and fear.

Underlying the anger, angst and fear felt by a large percentage of the electorate was a queasy feeling that public services, particularly in the educational and healthcare sectors, are declining, while costs go up and the provincial deficit rises.

Kathleen Wynne, Andrea Horvath, Doug Ford (Source: CTV Toronto)

Kathleen Wynne, Andrea Horvath, Doug Ford (Source: CTV Toronto)

Each of the parties vying for power made promises no reasonable voter believed they would – or even could – keep. Fear on the left that Doug Ford would win and drag Ontario into the kind of politics now being experienced in Trump’s America was being matched by fear on the right that an NDP win would lead to an exodus of businesses and jobs from the province. And, after 15 years of liberal governance, very few trusted the Liberals to do anything they said they would: if these things were so important, why had they not done them already?

 

Despite fears about deficits, debts and declining public services, only one party, the NDP, tied its promise to increase spending on healthcare and to create dental and pharma care to a commitment to raise taxes on the wealthy (those who make $100,000 or more a year).

Class warfare viewed from the right.

Class warfare viewed from the right.

The Liberals, who made similar spending promises, did not explain how they would pay for them, while the PCs made extravagant commitments — including ensuring that electricity costs would drop, healthcare would improve, beer would sell for a buck, the gas tax would fall ten cents a liter, the debt and deficit would be brought under control and taxes would be reduced. The tax breaks they proposed, it should be noted, would disproportionately benefit the wealthy — precisely the same voters on whom the NDP said they would raise taxes.

Interestingly, rather than challenging the plausibility of the claim that services could be improved and the debt and deficit tamed while taxes were reduced, right-wing commentators instead attacked the NDP for admitting the obvious truth that the only way to pay for improved services while simultaneously tackling the debt and reducing the deficit is to raise income and corporate taxes.

A Maclean’s article entitled “Why does Andrea Horwath want to eat the rich?” by Mike Milke captures the tone and content of these right-wing arguments very nicely. I want to use Milke’s claims both to demonstrate the kind of arguments often raised against any proposal to raise taxes on the wealthy, as well as to expose a commonly accepted fallacy which has important ethical implications for how we think about ourselves, our membership in a larger community and the role of taxes in mediating our relations with one another.

 

Milke makes the following factual assertions in his article: that those Ontarians who make $250,000 or more constitute 1% of those who file taxes in Ontario; that these people earn 12% of all income; that their contribution to provincial coffers was 26.5% of all income tax revenue; and that 3.5% of all Ontarians pay no income tax at all.

X-Box ad. (Source: Reddit)

X-Box ad. (Source: Reddit)

He also makes the following ethical claims (although he does not seem to recognize that they are normative, having to do with matters of right and wrong, rather than factual, or having to do with what is clearly and self-evidently the case): that middle and higher income Ontarians pay more than their fair share of taxes; that the NDP’s proposal to raise taxes on the rich to pay for increased public services that will benefit everyone, including those who pay no taxes at all, amounts to “class warfare;” and that lower- income Canadians, who benefit disproportionately from what society offers while contributing little, are getting a free ride.

I have to provide at least one direct quote so that readers of the Cape Breton Spectator can appreciate the full-flavor of Milke’s essay:

‘Low-income Ontarians get a great, tax-free deal for the cost of government’ is not a campaign plank with which a political party based in class warfare rhetoric would be comfortable. But it happens to be a clear fact.”

But is it? Not at all.

 

Milke’s claims that some people pay more than their “fair” share while others pay less, that some get a free ride while others are taken advantage of, are ethical assertions, not factual claims. Determining the rates of taxation citizens ought to pay, deciding who is to be asked to pay the most and who the least and determining who is to benefit from these taxation policies and who will be harmed are all ethical questions.

Class warfare viewed from the left.

Class warfare viewed from the left.

They are ethical questions, moreover, which go to the heart of our thinking about how we can best live together, what we owe one another, whether we understand our social selves to be primarily taxpayers or primarily citizens, and what role we believe the state ought to play in providing services and redistributing wealth.

The arguments raised by those on the right, then, as well as by those on the left (who are often more willing than the former to make appeals to concepts like “social justice” when they make their taxation proposals), are far more fundamentally ethical arguments than they are economic or even practical ones.

Consequently, then, no one on the right or the left (or anywhere in between) can legitimately assert that they are basing their claims about appropriate rates of taxation on economic truths or value-free facts. Instead, each side, implicitly or explicitly, underpins its economic claims with underlying ethical beliefs about the relationship of the individual to the state — who is deserving of help and who is not and whether we should place an emphasis on individual rights or community values.

 

What is astonishing is that those on the right, who are often quick to attack those on the left for mixing politics with economics, often fail to recognize that they are doing exactly the same thing – and that, indeed, when it comes to questions of who should pay taxes and how much they should pay, no one can escape the connection between economic policies and ethical judgments.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. (Photo by Jack Kightlinger, Official White House photographer. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. (Photo by Jack Kightlinger, Official White House photographer. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

It is also undeniably the case, however, that since the early 1980s, and the triumph of Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the US, that those on the right have largely gotten away with asserting that their taxation policies are entirely economically-based and value-free. In short, the arguments made by those on the right have come to dominate mainstream public discourse to such an extent that the claims they make are often accepted as simple and uncontroversial truths. But it is also undeniably the case that, not only are they not simple truths, their widespread acceptance has made the lives of many people worse.

Over the next five columns, I will present arguments that those on the left might use to respond to the claims made by people like Milke, with their careless assertion of “class warfare,” their straightforward defense of the rights of the rich over the needs of the poor, and their assumption that economic “facts” determine what constitutes “fair” levels of taxation, rather than ethical judgments.

 

Rachel Haliburton

Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.

 

 

 

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