Koen Rodabaugh headshot

Looking at the discussion surrounding President Joe Biden’s recent executive action to enact loan forgiveness for student borrowers, I noticed a severely harsh display of heartlessness. No matter your side of the debate over whether tuition should be paid by the state, we should never wish upon anyone severe pain and strife, physical or fiscal. 

I found a lot of Republican complaints tended to be based not necessarily on fiscal concerns (although those have been mentioned too). Instead, their rebukes devolved into ad hominem attacks on higher education, especially on liberal arts. 

As Rep. Jim Jordan so eloquently put it, “Why should a machinist in Ohio pay for the student loans of a jobless philosophy major in Los Angeles?” Much in the same vein, Sen. Ted Cruz, in his podcast, spoke of the “slacker barista who wasted seven years in college studying completely useless things.” I understand the worries of increased inflation but insulting those who might receive the funds is unnecessary.

These reactions to government spending indicate a lack of understanding regarding the point of taxation. Many Americans, especially conservative, wealthy individuals, have become severely antagonistic to the feeling of paying taxes and complain about the freedoms it may hinder individuals from practicing.

The purpose of taxation, as I see it, is to accumulate, protect and disseminate public goods to the people. The way we, as a people have decided to collect these necessary taxes, is through our representative government. Therefore, in order to maintain public goods, things we all need for our survival and progress, we need a government with the ability to tax the people they represent.

We already recognize some forms of educational knowledge as public goods. The material we learn in K-12 education is funded by the taxpayer at all levels. The entire existence of NC State was through the Land Grant Act of 1862 which provided education to farmers to enhance their agricultural quality.

In more modern times, areas of expertise such as engineering, mathematics and communications have become crucial for modern professions. This information can only serve to benefit North Carolina and the country more generally. Universities are the means by which the government disseminates that knowledge to the public, and that knowledge is crucial to an equitable and progressive economy and workforce. An educated workforce is a powerful workforce.

Why then, do we have a system where all taxpayers are providing funds for public universities, but those who want that education must pay to access it? 

In order to simply afford to live near or in universities, many students need full-time or well-paying part-time jobs. Then, after paying out of pocket to physically go to university, students are expected to pay thousands more for education, a public good they’ve already been paying for through their taxes.

Many view taxation today under the infamous adage made famous by Benjamin Franklin, “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” While Franklin is not incorrect in saying this, he inadvertently established a harshly pessimistic approach to taxation that undermines democratic governance.

The idea of democracy in the American tradition is heavily inspired by Greek thought. Formed by the Athenians, democracy was supposed to be not just a means of policy making but a heavily involved cultural value. To the Athenians, their trade was just as important as their participation in the public political discourse of the day.

American governance in comparison has long had a sectarian divide as to the nature of democracy. Our entire governmental system is devised as a means of pitting oligarchical elites against the democratic commons. As many note, we are after all not a full democracy but rather a constitutional republic.

But, American governance has continually democratized since its inception. For example, the Senate used to be a body of legislators appointed by state governments instead of by popular vote as it is now. The problem of our modern age is the difficulties of institutionalized cultural individualism based on our oligarchical roots and the immense political infusion required by increasingly democratic institutions.

Understanding this background of democracy is important to remember as we talk about the role of taxes in the modern day. Democracy, as I’ve said before, is not for the passive culture. It requires that we all actively participate. That we all stay informed about our communities and actively remain involved, voicing our opinions and conversing with each other.

We need to collectively shift our perspectives on taxes. The idea of taxation as a chore has become toxic, leading to the refusal of many policies that would otherwise be widely beneficial. We should instead see taxes as a civil duty, an act of honor and service to provide for the common welfare of not only yourself but every American.