One’s right to vote rests on one’s citizenship. One’s citizenship is often a product of birthright: whether one tumbles out of the womb on American soil or onto the deck of a USS frigate docked in Japan. As the race to occupy the White House reaches its final leg, the elections prod us to consider what constitutes the right to vote.
We want this right, a cardinal condition of any democracy, to stand on grounds that are more substantive than the capricious location of one’s birth. Rights are bound to obligations. A person can make demands on others because she adheres to certain duties.
In the context of a ballooning deficit, speeches and electoral debates have scrutinized the American government’s mandate and capacity to fund programs. It seems to follow that the person who wants her voice to count at the ballot box should at least contribute to the country’s coffers. Fulfilling this obligation is essential for the government’s existence. Notwithstanding quantitative easing, the state cannot redistribute if its pockets are empty.
If representation (a right) is coupled with taxation (an obligation), the provocative question arises whether a larger obligation (higher taxes) behoves the state to grant a larger right (a weightier vote).
This fancy encounters the rapid objection that it is undemocratic. The rich, who generally pay more tax dollars, are already privileged. Why further bless the privileged with more privileges, especially in the zero-sum ballot box where increasing the value of one’s vote diminishes the value of the votes from the less affluent?
However, when we stretch the idea of coupling representation with taxation, this thought experiment could enhance the enfranchisement in the world’s most eminent democracy.
For instance, legal persons like corporations and countries would have a say at the polls. Corporations pay corporate taxes, though many would fairly point out that they already have a firm grip on American politics. Countries also foot a fraction of tariffs; the remainder of the tax trickles to American consumers. They contribute to the government’s coffers.
Those who believe that taxation is a prime obligation but grow uncomfortable by the aforementioned suggestion might counter that this is a necessary, but insufficient, condition. With this, we spiral into a discussion on what the other conditions might be. Ideals and allegiance are hard to ascertain. Legal persons can also pledge themselves to these intangible concepts.
Beyond stodgy accounting definitions, what counts as tax dollars (money that flows into the government’s coffers and gushes out all over the country) is worthy of our contemplation.
At times, we refer to labor that wrings sweat from a human body as taxing work. Guest workers who arrive at North Carolina farms to harvest turgid tomatoes and pearly blueberries are shielded from neither the scorching heat nor demanding labor conditions, which less transient workers would avoid.
The boost in labor productivity allows Americans to enjoy the fruits of this labor, sanctioned by the H-2B visa. Calloused hands and parched, UV-saturated skin are products of this taxing labor. Consequently, tax dollars can be diverted from subsidizing farm products or the food on our tables. Guest workers subsidize the price of farm labor. Taxing labor is a de facto tax.
In the same vein, the Wal-Mart employee who wheels the clattering train of carts across the gravel parking lot and the Foxconn worker in Shenzhen who assembles the new iPad mini after four hours of sleep are hidden parts of the American tax code. These workers widen profit margins, a portion of which becomes tax dollars footed by corporations and people in managerial positions.
Some might object that analogizing tedious, taxing work to paying taxes is a naughty sleight of hand. The formal tax code coercively extracts tax dollars; individuals and corporations cannot shun taxes. Low-waged workers, both in the United States and abroad, have a choice whether they wish to subject themselves to certain working conditions.
On the issue of coercion, the well-to-do demographic could actually reduce their taxable income either by taking home less pay or through tax evasion, abetted by lawyers and accountants. People on the other end of the wealth spectrum have less wriggle room.
As Americans march to the polls, we should contemplate the determinants that justify the ability for one’s opinion to count in the ballot box vis-à-vis the inability of someone else to be counted. All of us are enmeshed in a circuit of relationships that breach national borders. Our ravenous consumption also connects us to Americans subsisting on meager hourly wages who can ill afford to head to the poll stations and be counted.
At the core of the right to vote, there is a weighty obligation to appreciate the human lives that lie beyond our immediate visible horizons.
Jing Song Ng is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Tuesday. You can follow Jing on Twitter @jingapore.