The shopping mall, or the common good?

Gordon Stewart
Gordon C. Stewart is a Presbyterian minister.
Submitted photo

Interesting how some words raise our blood pressure. The word "tax," for instance.

I heard it on a recent edition of Midmorning. A group of wealthy Americans have signed a petition called Wealth for the Common Good. They actually want their tax rate to be raised. A caller to the program was getting hotter by the minute. She was in a master's program and hoped to get above the line of $250,000 in annual income, and wondered why she should be "penalized" once she makes it there: "If I want to give some of my money away, that should be my choice. But I shouldn't be penalized by the government."

What views of the self and of society lie beneath the difference between the wealthy Americans who want to pay more taxes and the caller whose blood pressure was going through the roof because the government was going to penalize her with taxes?

The caller displays a self-understanding shaped by a consumer economy in which the self is an independent operator. The world is a shopping mall where I choose the stores to enter, which aisles to browse and what to buy. The world is there for me. Government is "them" -- the enemy of the mall. It penalizes shoppers, takes away my choices and trespasses on my property. It is the enemy of freedom.

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The wealthy petitioners -- mostly from the post-World War II generation -- tend to have a different view. They see themselves as "citizens" who, as citizens, bear responsibility for the common good. Many of them describe themselves as "stewards" rather than owners of their wealth. The wealth they have earned or inherited came from the society itself, and they feel obliged to pay their fair share of their nation's tax burden.

The America in which this older generation finds itself is strange to them. They wonder how a world of citizens became the world of the independent shopper. How a world in which a citizen was a brother's or sister's keeper became a world of greed. How, from Wall Street to Main Street, the common bonds and the common good became so shredded that we would see "taxes" as a penalty.

Our blood pressure should rise over the demagoguery that has turned greed into virtue, taxes into penalties, and the common good into a series of fenced yards whose "owners" dare anyone to trespass.

Taxes are the way a citizen contributes to the common life: sewers, streets, highways, utilities, street lights, clean water, breathable air, safety in the workplace, first responders and peace officers, national defense and security, Social Security, Medicare, airports and public transportation systems, not to speak of an educational system upon whose success depends the nation's future economic health.

The Wealth for the Common Good petitioners scratch their heads at how we came to see government and taxation as the enemies of freedom, instead of, as Lincoln put it, "the great task" of "a new birth of freedom."

On behalf of that task, it's time to take back words like "contributor," "citizen," "we," "responsibility," "government" and "common good." Not to mention "taxes."

Gordon C. Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, and a frequent guest commentator on All Things Considered.