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East/West: Analysis From Washington: From Citizens To Taxpayers

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 5 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - Since the end of the Cold War, individuals in the former communist countries and in many long-established Western democracies as well, are increasingly defining their relationships with the state and the broader society as taxpayers rather than as citizens.

Part of the reason for this shift is the decline in international tensions that have allowed people in both situations to devote more attention to personal rather than collective interests. Another part of it reflects the specific experiences that the two very different kinds of societies are now going through.

But this shift in orientation from a collective identity to an individual one is likely to have profound consequences for the ability of these countries to cope with the political and social problems they now confront. Moreover, by depriving governments of the kind of support they had earlier enjoyed, this shift may also make it more difficult for governments to deal with one another.

As has been the case after every conflict in modern times, the post-Cold War era has been marked by a significant shift away from collective identities like citizenship -- which stress reciprocal obligations -- and toward identities which emphasize the importance of the individual rather than his membership in broader groups.

But in the aftermath of the Cold War, this tendency has been exacerbated by developments on both sides, developments that have led many to adopt a consumerist approach toward the state and society.

In post-communist countries, governments have had to try to expand tax collections to make up for the collapse of state revenues from other sources. As the current situation in the Russian Federation shows, this task is far from easy. But one of its consequences is that individuals increasingly see their ties to the state as defined by their status as taxpayers rather than as citizens, a view many officials reciprocate.

On the one hand, that means that many individuals increasingly evaluate their stance toward the state in terms of a balance sheet between what they give and what they receive, rather than in terms of any larger national mission -- a form of evaluation that disposes many people to oppose any spending not directly on themselves.

And on the other hand, this development means that many individuals evaluate each other in the same way, thus limiting their ability to overcome the communist past by the formation of autonomous collective groups to advance or protect their own interests.

At the same time, in many long-established democracies in the West, individuals are making the same shift from citizen to taxpayer but for somewhat different reasons.

There, having carried the burden of the modern national security and welfare state for more than two generations, individuals are also looking at the government in terms of a balance sheet between what they pay in taxes and what they receive in benefits.

In many cases, this shift in orientation from citizen to taxpayer has led to efforts by various political groups to dismantle part or all of the structures of the increasingly large state structure and to devolve more control back to individuals.

At one level, this reorientation is a natural response to an earlier shift in the other direction during the Cold War. But it appears likely to entail three major problems for both post-communist and long democratic societies.

First, it contributes to a growing sense of alienation in many parts of the population. As individuals recognize that ever more people are narrowly focusing on personal interests rather than broader societal ones, they are likely to do the same, thus reinforcing rather than limiting a sense of isolation from society as a whole.

Second, this shift means that ever fewer individuals are willing to support programs that help groups either at home or abroad which do not have significant power in the country itself. That in turn is likely to mean a further exacerbation between those individuals at the top of the social pyramid and those at the bottom.

But even more, it is likely to mean that those in both places will see individuals in the other as the enemy rather than as part of a common society. That in turn could reignite class conflicts were it not for the social isolation that this shift promotes among many, especially at the bottom of the pyramid.

Third, this shift toward a consumerist approach to government often leaves the authorities without the support they need to do their jobs, even in the increasingly limited areas that the taxpayers want them to. In such situations, the government may be unable to help even when many in the society want it to.

But this can also lead to situations in which leaders may try to reestablish a sense of community either by playing on primordial ties like religion and ethnicity or by increasing tensions with neighbors.

So far, this shift is only one trend among many. But in both former communist countries and established democracies, it is a trend that may come to define the future, particularly if it remains largely unrecognized.