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President’s message / Taxes, populist common sense & the value of a university

President’s message / Taxes, populist common sense & the value of a university

By James Compton

“Taxes are theft.” I recently bumped into a man proudly displaying this slogan on a button pinned to his sports jacket. I was passing him in the Ottawa airport as he exchanged loud guffaws with his colleagues. Not feeling as cheery, I felt the urge to correct him, but restrained myself. No, I didn’t want to respond with “property is theft.” I don’t have those anarchistic inclinations. What I wanted to say was: “Taxes are civilization.” I wanted to assert a more historically accurate form of common sense.

The encounter got me thinking. As activists committed to advancing the interests of the academy, we need to challenge the “radical ahistoricism” that produces such a button. “Radical ahistoricism,” writes historian Ian McKay, “underwrites the acquisitive individualism rampant throughout” society, “because it rules out any possibility that we, as present-day activists, are connected with older forms of activism.”

We enjoy a wide range of public services from the roads we drive on, the health care we rely on, and the public education we need to produce engaged, critical citizens capable of maintaining civil society. These institutions and services didn’t emerge suddenly out of the ether. Nor are they philanthropic gifts bestowed by benevolent rich men. They were built as a result of collective need and effort. These are the social achievements former U.S. President Barak Obama was referring to when he famously said, “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.” And the political opponents who attacked him for engaging in so-called “class warfare” were guilty of the radical ahistoricism we need to oppose.

“Tax,” argues Thomas Docherty, “is a measure of an individual’s commitment to the public sphere and to the common good. Some individuals find themselves economically advantaged, for all kinds of reasons, in their society. The logic of a fair and progressive system says that those individuals should commit themselves more to the society that has sustained them in that position.”

This social contract, which gained force following the Second World War, gave us the modern university system with its commitment to sharing knowledge and opportunity as widely as possible. Thousands of soldiers returning home took advantage of the financial support and bursaries made available to veterans. One such person was a Vancouver high school dropout who would go on to write The Vertical Mosaic — one of the most influential sociological studies ever published in Canada. John Porter had to leave school in his teens in order to help support his family during the Great Depression, but after his military service he earned his PhD and wrote his now classic account of social inequality in Canada.

Knowledge is not a private benefit to be measured solely by post-graduation income. This ahistorical view is the product of the ideology of acquisitive individualism that has sadly gained footing in our universities over the past 30 years. Increasingly, students and faculty are encouraged to play a zero-sum game, in which they compete with colleagues for scarce research dollars, popularity awards, or traction on Twitter — marks of brand appreciation. Value here is reduced to a numeric currency or promotional recognition. This reorientation has fundamentally altered how universities are managed and goes some way to explaining the gross indifference shown by most university administrations to the working conditions of contract academic staff, now treated, functionally, as “socially unnecessary” labour in the production of value.

The university has undergone a fundamental inversion in which production and sharing of public goods has been supplanted by competition for private gain. “It is not,” argues Docherty, “that the primacy of the banks takes over from our intellectual authority. Rather, it is that we became complicit in the commercialization of knowledge and the monetization of intellectual activity.” In such a skewed intellectual environment, a university president can have a new engineering building named after him, despite having unionized faculty members vote 94 per cent in favour of a non-confidence motion on his leadership. Yes, that happened.

If we are to find a way out of this corner, we should start by challenging the anti-intellectualism of populist “common sense.” We should openly and loudly challenge ideas like, “Taxes are theft.” We did it before, and we can do it again.

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