Responsibilities toward the state

The June 23 Bloomberg article by Peter Gumbel, “French high school curriculum includes pitfalls U.S. should try to avoid with its Common Core,” talks about the relatively high standard of the French baccalaureat secondary school graduation exams, and a corresponding dropout rate.

Gumbel’s mention of one of the 2013 philosophy essay themes, “What do we owe the state?,” reminded me of the June 21 AP story “No respite from Italian tax man — even for top icons.” The questions of our duties/responsibilities toward the state and those of the state toward the populace are never settled and ought rightly to be questioned, examined, codified and re-codified continuously.

The tax-evasion story parades the matter of our financial duties, while the ongoing news of information whistle-blowers like Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden parade the question of our moral obligations. We are at the dawn of a new age in history, and these three information handlers have been caught in an old nation-state paradigm while experiencing life as global citizens. They are caught by a worldview that they feel they have grown beyond. Personally I feel that my moral obligations are minimal, as I view nationality largely as a matter of administrative convenience. But I don’t raise a fuss about it.

In the case of the famous and wealthy who are/have been engaged in tax conflict with the Italian government, it is easy to begrudge them for their unpaid millions when I have to struggle to pay my thousands and cannot afford their lifestyles. Nor can I afford sudden changes of country and citizenship to suit my pocketbook, such as French actor Gerard Depardieu, who flits around like a bird looking for the most comfortable roost.

But I stop myself from begrudging them too much because their stories remind me of the important principle that the government does not automatically own or deserve a portion of our incomes. Our money is ours to begin with, first and foremost.

Apologists of the nation state might assume the state has a kind of magisterium to tax its residents, but taxation goes hand in hand with a social compact. The state is obliged to provide services for the right to tax me, and in the meantime, the politicians who administer the arrangement have a duty to me as their employer. I enjoy paved roads, safe buildings, food and public transportation, public schools and libraries, social health insurance, water and other utilities, fire and police service, public parks, etc.

I support the state financially, but it’s a delicate support and it’s easy to over-estimate my dedication. My ideas about duties and responsibilities don’t compare with politicians’ ideas, but it will take a crisis to make that point apparent. If it does become apparent, it may come as a shock and I could be framed as an eccentric nonconformist. I imagine most common people feel the same.

grant piper

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.