Universality vs. User Fees as Political Philosophies


Universality is a citizen-based philosophy; user fees are a consumer-based one.

Universality, as I am using the term, is the concept that citizen-taxpayers (and others who pay taxes), all belong to the same society, and that the most efficient and effective way to obtain many of the goods and services essential for a civilized life is to purchase them together through our taxes. With this view, even the wealthiest would be eligible for such services as free health care, education, and day care, and would pay for these benefits through a progressive income tax system, based on the ability to pay (as they do in the Scandinavian countries where high taxes provide for a high quality of life).

The user pay philosophy is consumer-based: We are all individuals responsible for ourselves and our families, for covering our costs, and buying the goods and services we need and want, including those provided through the government. In its purest form, only those who, for example, sail on a ferry, drive on a road, cross a bridge, or enjoy a park would pay for each such use. There is obviously a limit as to how far this principle can be taken; governments have always been responsible for providing some services for all—armies, roads, and such. But as we’ve seen in B.C. the Liberal government’s boast that we have the lowest income taxes means that, for example, those who depend on the coastal ferries, are being priced out of being able to travel, or being in goods, at an affordable cost.

User pay doesn’t come cheap. Take MSP premiums, for example. In a February 1, 2013 editorial the Victoria Times-Colonist pointed out that, “Collecting more income tax instead of premiums would spare the cost of a huge bureaucracy. Just mailing out invoices costs millions,” and goes on to detail other associated costs.
In Canada, at least, the user pay philosophy can never be practiced in its purest form. While some roads and bridges may be tolled, there are always alternate ways that are not tolled (except for the coastal ferries in B.C., of course); primary and secondary education, and some health care are also free to all. But in B.C., in exchange for lower personal and corporate income taxes, fees and premiums have been steadily rising—the very regressive MSP premiums have gone up, as have ferry fares, and fees for almost every kind of government services.

It’s time to bring back universality as the basis for funding public services, and to severely limit the imposition of user fees.

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