Death and taxes might be a certainty but a Memorial University professor is examining the role uncertainty plays when citizens object to paying taxes.
“In short, our research asks why people are reluctant to foot the bill for popular social goods—like high-quality roads, good schools and a clean environment—on which most citizens place a high value,” said Dr. Scott Matthews, who studies voting behaviour and public opinion in Canada and the United States. “It’s about examining the psychology of support for what we call policy trade-offs.”
Dr. Matthews, an associate professor of political science professor at Memorial since 2012, has received a prestigious Canadian Fulbright Scholar Award and will be the Fulbright Visiting Research Chair at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., for six months beginning this fall.
Fulbright Scholars are emerging and established scholars, post-doctoral researchers and experienced professionals who conduct research, teach or undertake a combination of both activities for one semester or the full academic year.
“It’s definitely an interesting time to be in a conservative Republican southern state,” said Dr. Matthews. “Nashville itself has strong progressive dimensions, so I am very keen to see how things play out there with the election.”
Building public support
Dr. Matthews and his research collaborator, Dr. Alan Jacobs of the University of British Columbia, believe uncertainty about the future and lack of trust in the political process make it hard to build public support for long-term investments. For example, when an individual agrees to a gas tax to fund improvements in roads and bridges, beliefs about what ultimately happens with the money and whether it will be actually spent on that priority and not diverted to something else, often come down to trust.
In one study, which focused on Americans’ attitudes towards investment in repairing the country’s decaying physical infrastructure, researchers discovered greater support for initiatives managed by local governments and the United States Army Corps of Engineers (a U.S. federal agency under the Department of Defense) than for similar initiatives managed directly by the U.S. Congress.
Distrust of politicians
The key factor, Dr. Matthews argues, is Americans’ relative confidence in local governments and the military, as compared with the politicians who comprise Congress. Drs. Matthews and Jacobs found that this pattern was especially pronounced for ideological conservatives, who are especially skeptical of government-led policy solutions.
“We also found that people who are relatively trusting in government are significantly more likely to accept a tax increase—trust makes a big difference in their willingness to pay for a public good,” said Dr. Matthews, who is now exploring how policies can be designed to generate more confidence that their promised benefits will be realized and, thus, make citizens more willing to sacrifice for the public good.
“What taxpayers want, our studies suggest, are iron clad assurances that public officials will do with public money as they say.”
According to Dr. Matthews, in a country like the United States where the major political parties are so fractured, the popular social goods he investigates are priority issues that don’t divide individuals and that cross party lines—everyone wants to drive on a good road and have access to a financial solvent public pension plan.
“What taxpayers want, our studies suggest, are iron clad assurances that public officials will do with public money as they say. The findings also suggest that smart policy and institutional design has the potential to build broader support for the kinds of public investments that most Americans value.”