There is a lack of connection between the Estonian state, and the people who live here. While it expects a lot of the state, Estonian society doesn’t seem ready to contribute, writes Viktor Trasberg.
Independence Day brings us a moment to give sense to the existence of the Estonian state, and the conditions under which it can continue. Watching and listening to our everyday media, it seems that unfortunately the Soviet era (and perhaps even the era of serfdom) has not yet disappeared from our thinking and rhetoric.
The experience of our state’s centenary and more than a quarter of a century of a free market economy notwithstanding, it often seems that our status has not yet sunk in with too many people. The state is perceived and talked about as something that exists separately from the people, and is somewhere far away. Just like in Russian times, whether under imperial or Soviet rule.
Very often we see situations where people talk about Estonia like it wasn’t our own state, and didn’t represent our common interests.
As if Estonia hadn’t been created to ensure the continued existence of the Estonian society, but on the contrary that had been thought up to bully people. On one side, people ask why the state doesn’t offer them a good education or why it doesn’t build good highways, and on the other they ask why they should contribute at all, and why the state punishes them with taxes.
Statements aren’t rare where in the first half of the sentence people demand fewer taxes, and in the second half call for better-educated employees, and greater state contribution to whatever.
As a line by American pastor Adrian Rogers goes that is pretty familiar to us as well, the state can’t give anything to anyone that it didn’t take away from someone else. This line is pointless both in its direct and implied meaning. The state can’t take highways or nuclear submarines away from anyone, but it is the only institution that can create them. I would change the line: we can’t get anything from the Estonian state to which we haven’t contributed.
There is no Estonian state that exists independently from the Estonian society. There is precisely the kind of state offering precisely the kind of service that is made up of what our own people have contributed to it. If we don’t contribute, then we can’t have the things that only the state can offer: military defense, education, infrastructure, and the rule of law.
And the state has to be paid for at market conditions, not symbolically, but in cold, hard cash.
Now, a practical question: how do we finance a state that offers us these services?
The Nordic countries with their high tax burdens are characterized by one clear difference to the countries in Eastern Europe: their states are trusted. The Swedes and the Danes agree to pay the highest taxes, because they know that the money is spent in their own interest. And it’s a matter of pride to contribute to that.
At the same time a well-known Estonian businessman declares with just as much pride that he isn’t planning to invest so much as a cent in his parents’ pensions tax, or in public health care for his children. Let the others pay.
In Estonia, making the rich contribute more is seen as a form of punishment. This logic directly conflicts with tax theory, and with the logic of how people behave. The rich always depend on the state more than the poor. They get more out of society, and with that it is only natural that they are expected to contribute more.
This isn’t punishment, or slowing down those who are able to move faster. Estonia’s path into the future can’t be compared to a race at the end of which only one will be the winner, and everybody else bites the dust. Quite the opposite, we are on a long journey into the future, and everybody needs to be able to make it home.
Every last one. Only like this can we prevail as a people and as a state—for the next one hundred years.
Viktor Trasberg is an economist and lecturer at the University of Tartu.
Editor: Dario Cavegn