How Much “Civilization” Does Your Tax Money Buy?

Tax Day, April 15, is traditionally the time of year when liberals trot out that old Oliver Wendell Holmes chestnut: “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”

But what kind of “civilization” are we paying for? At the federal level, if you include not only the nominal “Defense” [sic] budget, but Veterans’ Affairs, the military aspects of NASA and the Department of Energy, interest on the national debt from past wars, etc., military spending is nearly half the total budget.

The Obama administration  complains that sequestration has resulted in cuts to, among other things, law enforcement. But the US has the largest prison-industrial complex in the world, and militarized SWAT teams of black-uniformed Gestapo wannabes in virtually every town in the country, mainly because of government-declared “wars” on consensual activity like drug use and sex work.

But some government spending — infrastructure, education, welfare and so on — is “progressive,” right?

We know progressives love infrastructure. You can’t sit through an MSNBC commercial break without seeing Rachel Maddow equating the Hoover Dam with “big things” and national greatness.

But infrastructure projects like big dams and the Interstate Highway System were created to make the mid-20th century model of centralized, bureaucratic, mass-production capitalism profitable. You can thank the Interstate’s artificially cheap long-distance shipping costs, in large part, for driving local canneries and breweries out of business, making large-scale agribusiness competitive against local food production, and for the Walmart “warehouses on wheels” distribution model that’s destroyed Main Street retail. You can thank heavily subsidized irrigation water from the big dams for making giant plantations in California artificially profitable. The goods at Walmart or the lettuce in a bag at the supermarket may look cheap, but you pay the hidden cost on April 15.

Education? The first state public education systems were created in the 1830s and 1840s when factory employers needed workers trained to line up on command, eat and urinate at the sound of a bell, and cheerfully take direction from authority figures sitting behind desks. The main effects of federal aid to education have been to serve as a stick for imposing standardized testing and teaching-to-the-test on local systems, and keep the school-to-corporate-HR-department conveyer belt running smoothly. The main effect of the GI Bill and other federal higher education spending since WWII has been to drive up tuition costs, promote endless sprees of hiring more administrators and building more physical plant, and inflate unnecessary credentialing requirements for most forms of employment.

Even when programs like Social Security and safety net spending genuinely promote public welfare compared to the baseline — everything being the same except that government program — we should keep in mind, first, that it’s a side-effect of the state’s primary purpose of stabilizing capitalism, and second, that it was made necessary in the first place by problems resulting from the conditions of structural privilege and monopoly enforced by the state on behalf of capitalists.

The artificial scarcities, monopolies and artificial property rights enforced by the state result in enormous rents to the economic ruling class, at the expense of workers and consumers. The resulting increase in income for those with the highest propensity to save and invest, and reduction in income for those with the highest propensity to consume, leads to a built-in tendency toward overaccumulation and underconsumption, and a chronic boom-bust cycle.

To stabilize things, the state steps in and redistributes just enough of the stolen rents to augment aggregate demand and prevent the system from collapsing. And the state runs a permanent deficit to fund those big blockbuster infrastructure projects and the prison-industrial and military-industrial complexes, in order to utilize all that excess production capacity and lower the unemployment rate.

Even when the regulatory and welfare state makes corporate capitalism more bearable than it otherwise would be, it’s a case of the capitalists acting through their state to clean up their own mess at public expense.

The state, by its very nature, is the executive committee of a ruling class. It’s the mechanism by which landlords, usurers, bureaucrats and rentiers extract wealth from the majority of the population. That’s the “civilization” your taxes are paying for.

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