Much of today’s angry rhetoric is constructed around two dubious claims: (1) taxes are unjust, because my money is the result of my own hard work; and (2) people helped by government are indolent leeches.
One problem with the latter claim is that people who look down on welfare recipients who are poor have a remarkably benign view of welfare recipients who are rich. They see nothing wrong with paying USA Funds and similar enterprises lots of money just to give away federal dollars for student loans—a cushy deal with absolutely no downside risk—or with politicians who rail against government “handouts” while raking in big farm subsidies. (Tennessee Congressional candidate Stephen Fincher, a darling of the anti-tax folks, gets $200,000 a year from the government; “anti-socialist” Rep. Michelle Bachmann gets $250,000.)
The more insidious claim, however, is the first: I worked hard for my money and government has no right to tax it for anything other than police and armies to protect me and my property.
Ian Welsh points out some “inconvenient truths” about that claim. He compares the average American to the average citizen of Bangladesh. The average American makes $43,740 annually; the average Bangladeshi, $470.
Why the difference? American children are less likely to suffer from malnutrition, which adversely affects intellect later in life. American children are far more likely to get good educations. When a Bengali child grows up, there are fewer available jobs. If he starts a business, the market will be much smaller than the equivalent American market. As Welsh says,
“The vast majority of money that an American earns is due to being born American. Certainly, the qualities that make America a good place to live and a good place to make money are things that were created by Americans, but mostly, they were created by Americans long dead or by Americans working together. ..Since the majority of the money any American earns is a function of being American, not of their own individual virtues, government has the moral right to tax.”
Welsh isn’t the first to come to this conclusion. Thomas Paine, perhaps the most eloquent of the Founders, expressed similar sentiments in his pamphlet “Agrarian Justice.”
“Separate an individual from society, and give him an island or a continent to possess, and he cannot acquire personal property. He cannot be rich. So inseparably are the means connected with the end, in all cases, that where the former do not exist the latter cannot be obtained. All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man’s own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.”
Patriotism isn’t just about being willing to die for your country. It’s also about being willing to pay your fair share to maintain the social infrastructure that makes life more pleasant—and more profitable—for us all.