On Tuesday, November 3, voters of Washtenaw County rejected a proposal to raise their property taxes. The revenue generated by the millage was supposed to go to the Washtenaw County public school system, comprised of 10 districts with the money being distributed to these districts on a per-pupil basis. (Michigan Daily) The debate over this millage sparked my interest as I began to consider the perspectives of Locke and Rousseau on this issue. I’ve concluded that although both are democratic, Rousseau would likely have been opposed to the outcome of the vote, whereas Locke would have supported the voters’ decision.
Rousseau asserts that the answer to the disaster that society has become is to form an association “which defends and protects with all common forces the person and goods of each associate” (Wootten, pg. 432). His ideal form of government acts in a manner that is consistent with the general will. He states, “the general will is always right and always tends toward the public utility” (Wootton, pg. 437). He also warns that the populace is not corrupted, but it is often tricked (Wootton, pg. 437). With the foundation for Rousseau’s thought in place, I hope to illustrate why Rousseau would oppose the outcome of the millage vote. In a recent survey of Washtenaw County, 54% of adult voters favored a countywide enhancement millage for schools (mlive.com). According to this statistic (which I am assuming to be a direct reflection of all Washtenaw County residents) a majority of residents favored education, so the proposed millage should have passed. Yet the millage was not passed, and therefore Rousseau may have argued that the rejection of this millage is inconsistent with the general will. Rousseau could also argue that the personal advantages of lower taxes may have “tricked” individuals into voting against the millage. In this instance, it would be appropriate for the government (of Washtenaw County) to intervene and enact the millage, thereby “forcing” the voters to be free, since it is in the interest of the general will. The fact that Rousseau would support government intervention to tax personal property is at odds with the purpose of government according to Locke.
Locke’s chief end of government was to protect the people’s property. Locke states, “the power of society…can never be supposed to extend farther, than the common good; but is obliged to secure everyone’s property” (Wootton, pg. 321). With this statement, I will extrapolate to say that Locke would have supported the voters of Washtenaw County, who he sees as the supreme power in civil society. Contrary to Rousseau, Locke would not support the government overriding the vote in favor of the “general will” as it infringes on the citizen’s personal property. Therefore, the government would need the consent of the people before it could impose the tax suggested in the millage.
Ultimately, Locke and Rousseau would have agreed on the democratic principles involved in deciding on a public issue like the Washtenaw County millage proposal. Yet, because a survey was released indicating a majority of Washtenaw county residents would have favored increased funding for local school districts, Locke and Rousseau would have disagreed on the outcome of the vote, with Locke supporting the millage rejection if residents felt it would infringe on their property rights. Moreover, Rousseau would have argued the government could have acted in opposition to the vote and implemented the property tax because it was the general will to have increased funding for education. Although we will never know exactly what each philosopher would argue, especially with the structure of Washtenaw County’s society being vastly different than any society they may have imagined, I still find it interesting to try and deduce what their reaction to an issue like this might be.
Modern Political Thought: readings from machiavelli to Nietzsche/ edited, with introductions, by David Wootton.-2nd ed.