Discussions of government benefits often follow very predictable lines, the narrative shaped by the social elite as an indictment of the disadvantaged. When’s the last time a massive, corporate subsidy has been loaded onto a welfare card?
At a personal level, what is the monetary benefit of the infrastructure purchased by taxpayers that preceded us — yet we’ve utilized? How does the cheap goods and services we access — created by political policies we’ve never considered — impact our wealth? Equally important, what is the absolute value of government benefits received — those benefits hidden behind the carefully crafted rhetoric on mortgage interest deductions, capital gains tax rates, and the estate tax?
One of the most overlooked considerations in discussions of one’s “fair share of taxes” is a cursory examination of who most benefits from past and current political policy. Looking at income shares and tax percentages tell only a limited part of the story — and often ignores decades of policy decisions that have deeply altered wealth and income stratification. It also ignores the sophisticated terminology that frames welfare payments as a government benefit — while ignoring government payments for the affluent that dissolve into an indiscernible mist of complex rules, financial protections, and policies.
There is a pervasive, self-serving idea — that any increase in national debt pays for benefits not our own — and welfare programs are funded by our anguished toil. We’re persecuted givers; propping up a society of takers; never considering that we are embracing simplistic narratives designed to keep the attention on society’s disenfranchised — and away from those who quietly leverage their power and profit the most from government intervention. We ignore the possibility — that we ourselves are takers, our taxes not covering the entire spectrum of benefits we receive.
We are all reliant on a deep web of interdependence, our privileges purchased before birth. If we could see this reliance, could more fully grasp the unspoken and invisible advantages we’ve been granted, we would be more reticent to attribute our social standing to merit — while we criticize those we’ve been socialized to condemn.
This isn’t to suggest there aren’t valid debates about merit, work, or welfare policy — but it is a call for introspection, for asking questions that may be uncomfortable to answer. When we’re the heroes in our own self-talk and our social opponents are the villains, it’s possible we’re puppets on a string. A string unseen because our attention is being cleverly directed toward horizontal conflicts — as we fail to look up.