With political leaders arguing that paying taxes are a duty for the public good, Evan O’Quigley takes a look at the politics of patriotism

Patriotism is a strange animal, similar to its cousins, nationalism and jingoism. It is often defined as ‘vigorous support for one’s country’. Most often in modern political discourse, patriotism is associated with support for the military, your government and its leaders. The former US president George W. Bush often springs to mind when discussing being a ‘patriot’. He often pushed through unpopular policies by asserting that support of them was akin to being a patriot, and in the case of the now infamous PATRIOT Act, even voting on specific legislation. Such a definition of the word is somewhat flawed, as unlike nationalism, patriotism is not inherently ideological, and does not reduce love of one’s country and traditions to blind flag-worship.

Since the recession however, a new sort of pattern has emerged, whereby policies of the left are now being associated with being ‘patriotic’ and good for the country. President Obama and his fellow Democrats have been keen to hop on board this new economic populism as of late. In his first televised debate with Republican opponent Mitt Romney earlier this month, the US president rhetorically asked his audience: “Are we going to double down on the top-down economics that got us into [the recession] or do we embrace a new economic patriotism, that says America does best when the middle-class does best?”. This falls nicely in line with Obama’s criticisms of millionaires and top-earners in the United States who often pay very small amounts of tax through various loopholes such as capital gains being taxed at a lower rate

A notable case of this is Mitt Romney, who if elected would become roughly the forth richest president in history (including early presidents that owned slave plantations), who paid a rate of 13.9% in 2010 on his large income, and also has a Swiss bank-account which protects some of his earnings from further taxation. Obama has used this to his advantage by arguing that paying higher taxes in your own country, especially during a recession is a patriotic duty. The President has regularly called on America’s top earners to pay their ‘fair share’ of income tax in order to bring in more revenue, as an alternative to further cuts to public services, one large feature of his economic policy.

The British author J.K. Rowling, one of 54 billionaires resident in the UK in 2006, has also claimed that paying taxes is part of a duty to one’s country. Rowling said earlier this year that: “The main [reason] was that I wanted my children to grow up where I grew up, to have proper roots in a culture as old and magnificent as Britain’s; to be citizens, with everything that implies, of a real country, not free-floating expats, living in the limbo of some tax haven and associating only with the children of similarly greedy tax exiles.” Rowling also cited her support of the welfare state in Britain that was there to ‘break the fall’ when her life had hit ‘rock bottom’.

This is in contrast to the Irish entrepreneur and media mogul Denis O’Brien. O’Brien likes to assert himself as a man of the people, all of whom pay their taxes in Ireland and benefit from public services like free education, roads and bridges and health care. The only problem with this is that O’Brien, like many others in his income bracket, is a tax-exile, who is a permanent resident of Malta for no other reason than to protect his income in a Mediterranean tax haven. Of course O’Brien is not a resident of Malta, but maintains a home here in Ireland, but his money is not. It is hidden away offshore where it can’t be grabbed by low-life scroungers and dole-ites.

While patriotism seems to be finding a new home on the left, there is no doubt that it is also still home to conservative forces. Calling on the patriotism of the public has also been attempted in bringing in austerity measures. Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore earlier this year told Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald and other members of the opposition in the Dáil to ‘put on the green jersey’ in order to assist the Government in dealings with the troika, which have arguably caused many cuts to the public services including education and health care.

The major problem with Gilmore’s argument, as with our government in general, is that there is nothing patriotic about adhering to nonsense economics and the ideologically right wing programme of social engineering that is austerity. Calling for fairer taxation for the public good, and negotiating a fairer deal for Ireland with the EU and IMF is a sign of solidarity to its population. The left is now finally making the case, and should have been long ago, that austerity itself is inherently anti-patriotic, as it does not protect the public good, but rather the interests of big business and capital.

Patriotism would find a better home on the left. Perhaps George Orwell said it best, in making the distinction between being a patriot and reactionary nationalism that: “By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

The left should be clear in making the argument for a patriotic social contract, whereby if we pay our fair share through taxation, we will all receive an adequate and fair share of social services that benefit the public good.