Citing To Me

Sunday, I spoke to the Danville Unitarians about equality and the 14th Amendment (which has been getting some public interest lately, thanks to the question whether Section 3 disqualifies Trump). As I was preparing that talk, I looked back through some old posts, and came across one from April of 2016–before Trump and his distorting effect on the issues of governance and public policy that now form the bulk of posts here.

It’s probably tacky to repeat myself, but the post raised a fundamental question with which we continue to wrestle–namely, what does genuine liberty look like–so I’m repeating it here (and yes, sort of taking the day off…)


In my classes, when I get to the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, I generally begin with a discussion of what Americans mean by “equality,” and the perceived tension between equality and liberty.

Clearly, if we are talking about the operation of law and civil government, we are bound to understand the call for equality as limited to those areas in which government operates, and not surprisingly, there is a pretty substantial literature exploring what it means to be “equal before the law”– to have equal civil rights and liberties.

It isn’t simply us lawyer types, either; political philosophers have argued for years–okay, centuries!–that government efforts to nudge us in the direction of egalitarianism–that is, in the direction of material equality— diminish liberty and are ultimately immoral, because advocates of redistribution tend to ignore the issue (near and dear to more libertarian hearts) of merit or desert.  Those who see it that way read the famous Marxist admonition: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” as support for expropriation — a system where productive and conscientious workers would be taken advantage of by the ineffectual and/or lazy.

Americans have a deeply-rooted cultural belief that people are poor because they are morally defective, and it didn’t start with the Tea Party. (Actually, it started with Calvin.) I once traced Indiana’s welfare system back to the 15th Century English Poor Laws- laws that prohibited people from giving “alms” to “sturdy beggars.”

So here we are, stuck, policy-wise.

We have a longstanding (and probably insurmountable) concern about the fairness of taking money from people who have (at least theoretically) earned it in order to help people who–for whatever reason–have much less. In more selfish eras (like now) that distaste for redistribution jaundices our approach to taxes for even the most traditional civic purposes. Paying more taxes than absolutely necessary (i.e., police, fire and maybe the sewer system)  is seen as state-sponsored theft, or at the very least, a deprivation of liberty.

As I previously noted, it isn’t difficult to find people arguing that efforts to narrow the gap between rich and poor (redistributive taxes) are assaults on liberty. If there is one thing Americans appear to agree upon, it is the pre-eminence of liberty over other values. What we don’t see discussed very often, however, is what we mean by liberty–and the extent to which government is responsible for ensuring that citizens can enjoy it.

Liberty, at its most basic, is my ability to live a life of my own choosing, so long as I am not harming someone else–my right to live where I like, marry whom I love, choose or reject a church, vote for candidate A rather than B, raise my children as I see fit, opt to spend the weekend at a museum or in the garden….But there are a lot of people in my state (as elsewhere) who do not have liberty in any meaningful sense, that is, the ability to make even these minimal choices, because every waking moment is spent simply trying to survive.

Every person struggling to make ends meet is not a “sturdy beggar,” trying to pull a con. (If research is to be believed, relatively few are.) But rather than trying to change this stubborn cultural meme, or reminding ourselves of the multiple ways we all benefit when societies are more equal materially, let me ask a different question.

If a 10% increase in your taxes could be shown to  allow every American to enjoy at least a minimal level of liberty/self-determination–would you pay it?

Or is the liberty you cherish limited to your own? If it’s the latter–I think that’s privilege you are valuing, not liberty.


  1. I believe we have seen that the truly wealthy (or a vast majority), who have no qualms about spending thousands, millions of dollars on useless things—Space X trips, for example—don’t want to pay ANY taxes, much less have a 10% increase. Their motto, it seems, would be “liberty for me, but not for thee.”

  2. Corporate greed is doing its part to keep a chunk of the population in poverty. Here is New York Times opinion piece about how labor laws are being manipulated to enhance profits. It is “gifted” so it should not be behind a paywall.

    It’s Not Just Wages. Retailers Are Mistreating Workers in a More Insidious Way.

  3. Maybe at the state level? The fed seems out of control. When you look at NewYork and California where they have 10-13% income tax, they have the largest debt, California the largest immigration population.
    Chip Roy a Reupublucan wants each state to sue the federal government over increasing the poorest of poor injected into our ststem.

  4. We must also remember that at the time economics/barter was invented, and surplus goods were converted into power factors over others, the haves have always wanted more. The profits from hoarding more surplus and selling it at prices the “market would bear”, created the need for cheap labor, i.e., slavery. Slavery is, actually, the ideal labor scenario for capitalism.

    We can slice this banana any way we want, but the ultimate explanation comes from Rebecca Costa – who I often cite – that we are trying to operate a multi-billion human population with a brain that developed to support a small, tribal unit. Try as we might, our primitive instincts for survival of that unit drive just about everything we do as societies around the world.

    Scandinavia has figured out a pretty good blend of capitalism, democracy and socialism to generate the longest-lived populations and the happiest people. The “greatest country on earth”? Not so much.

  5. How many tithe 10% to their member church? I doubt very many people.

    The problem is more and more people today don’t trust the government to do the right thing with the extra money they receive. How many times does the federal government dip into the social security fund?

    That would be the argument about raising taxes. As the government enlarges itself, liberty suffers. It’s the classic libertarian argument. Argentina is the most current libertarian experiment. Already, the peso has been deeply devalued. Their new president will have them in a major crisis before long, and how much loss of liberty does that entail?

    If an oppressive government means a lack of liberty, we have less liberty today than in the past, especially with the FISA court and NSA. The government is doing much more than spying on Americans. Let Trump become president again, and we all will enjoy less liberty and freedom.

  6. I’m going to take a different tack. The piece I see missing out of this discussion is that people aren’t poor because they’re lazy. it has become more and more apparent that the system is rigged to keep people poor. Capitalism can be seen as a system to allow the rich to buy labor at the cheapest possible price, especially when the rich pretty much own not just the means of production of products, but also the means of production of laws. Fortunately Biden is turning us away from the Reagan “what ever the Capitalists want” philosophy of governing.

  7. I gave up talking about taxes years ago when I realized most people fail to grasp the simplest of concepts when it comes to tax and monetary policy. For me, there is no better time to pay taxes than when your dead. But when I found families living in trailer parks saying the estate tax was evil, I knew it was all lost. Todd, I often cannot tell what your point really is… yes, government often gets it wrong (defense department spending will always be exhibit 1 there) but are thinking that a pure private sector delivery system would be better than our government system – more precisely or “mixed economy” approach? I’ve never heard an elected official call for the blanket raising of taxes, they often call for SOME to pay their fair share – like the uber wealthy. That seems different to me and the result of which would not affect anyone’s liberty.

  8. I’m afraid that we all are our education. That is, we all only know what we have been taught either by parents or teachers or friends or enemies or family – any others that we have had experience with either face to face or through symbols like numbers, letters, and sounds.

  9. I once read that poverty has more than one cause, four of which are: (1) A temporary set back, e.g., job loss, illness, loss of a breadwinner. These folks need a temporary boost until they get back on their feet. (2) Permanent physical and/or mental disability. There are people who will never be able to become totally self-supporting, who will need some support throughout their lives. (3) People who choose to limit their income to prevent loss of benefits they need. My stepson who is on the spectrum recently left a part-time job to accept a low-paying 30 hours a week) job at a school. As a result, he completely lost his Social Security disability income, and we must supplement his income from his very modest trust fund. These folks might rise out of poverty if the programs they rely on would allow a gradual transition to work rather than a financial cliff. (4) People who lack resources to rise from poverty. Some may may lack needed education or training, some may have drug/alcohol abuse or mental health problems, some may be unable to afford childcare, transportation, and other expenses associated with getting a job. This is the most diverse and hardest group to address. But regardless of the cause, there is no one-size fits all answer based on the premise that the poor are simply lazy and don’t want to work.

  10. Sheila—we are among those who would most definitely pay more in taxes to help others achieve some relief for the work of survival. We still remember clearly how giddy we were in the late 1970s when we saw how much we had earned (vis-a-vis our parents). Although we wish we could pick and choose some of the taxes, we just pay them all—that’s what citizens do. They vote, and they pay taxes.

  11. I find that a lot of people like to complain about the way things are but they aren’t out volunteering or donating to make it better. I understand people have busy lives trying to survive but things get better through funding and action. Do what you can, even if it’s as simple as signing a petition. If you want to help a cause more then read about it and figure out how to help. I just got a book to read called “Saving Us” by a climate scientist on how to talk to people about climate change.

  12. Paula, Thank you so much for sharing the causes of poverty. People often think that people in poverty are obvious by their raggedy clothes and cardboard signs. Yet if you go to church and see the poor they can be dressed in a way that you would never know they are poor. So I worry that poverty is more common than we realize here in the U.S. because people “couch surfing” probably aren’t even in the poverty statistics.

  13. Instead of increasing taxes by 10% we should require every employer to pay a livable wage. If you are employed by someone else, either a small business or up to and including a large corporation, the maximum amount of taxes is taken from your wages before you receive your paycheck while businesses/corporations have access to a plethora of deductions they can apply to their income tax.

    If a business claims it cannot afford to pay their employees even the bare minimum of $15/hour that has been mentioned for several years, then they don’t deserve to be in business because our government forces the rest of us to subsidize those businesses via social safety net benefits for their employees.

    I am sick of corporate welfare and I’m sick of hearing ignorant republican voters complain about people being too lazy to work – especially too lazy to get a 3rd job to pay their own bills. You can explain in detail to those republicans who the true welfare queens are and they understand it at the moment, but when it comes time to vote they will continue to vote a straight R ticket.

  14. In re Vern’s note re democratic socialism in Scandinavian countries – I have written of the following experience on this blog before but I think it is worth a revisit to Sheila’s topic for today. I once visited a very rich lawyer in Stockholm, Sweden, among other relatives of my now-deceased wife. He and his wife lived in a beautiful condo bedecked with jade and paintings on One Kungsgarten Street in the center of downtown. He and his wife had a condo in Switzerland and would sometimes fly down there for a weekend of skiing. They also had a condo on Majorca, an island for the rich in the Mediterranean. We often received postcards from Hong Kong and other exotic venues from these world travelers. They were democratic socialists in a country where poverty is illegal, a real contrast with our homelessness, sick, and hungry children here. Medical bills? Unknown in Sweden, but the leading cause of bankruptcy filings here. How come?

    I thought I would play Republican right winger and asked him if income taxes there were some 50%, and he after some hesitation, said, “Yes, I think that’s about right, Jerry.” I countered with “That’s a little high, isn’t it,” and I’ll never forget his reply: “Well, Jerry, that depends upon what you get for your money.” He then set out a litany of what Swedes get for their money, after which I concluded that we pay more taxes than Swedes do as measured by benefits received – far more – so contrary to what we are told as a matter of faith, perhaps tax increases can be good policy. It depends on whom you fairly tax, how much, and what you do with such tribute.

    The difference is, of course, that Swedes trust their government to do what benefits all Swedes and we don’t here, and both for good reason. With state legislatures and a Congress as cesspools who benefit their donors and themselves and ignore the rest of us who foot the bills via taxation and an unfair distribution of the wealth provided by an economy owned by the few, the status quo is in good order, all while our sidewalk population increases – a phenomenon unknown in Sweden.

    I am going to go out on a limb today with the following prediction: That further sophistication of AI will bring about massive displacement of human labor and require all countries, including ours, to adopt some form of democratic socialism if humanity is to survive, since the fate of civilization should be in the hands of the people in a democracy and not in the hands of authoritarians, Wall Street and hedge funds. I foresee market capitalism as now practiced will necessarily be victim of a virtually labor-less world where supply is unlimited but demand absent, a world where only government can fashion a response, and one we need from a Piketty or Krugman to define since that is far beyond my skill set.

  15. Democratic socialist countries have more billionaires than I once assumed. When I searched for information, I came across this article about Swedish billionaires of which there are many.

    Is wealth more evenly distributed in Sweden? Yes. Do they pay much higher tax rates? Yes.

    I would argue that we strive for equality of opportunity AND provide a universal base income to all.

  16. An interesting article and interesting comments today. Thanks to you all.
    In all the comments of today I have noticed something missing that I’ve valued ever since I was in college & then my first year of teaching, things which were found in two sources.
    In college, it was a short essay on the causes of the the Civil War by the young historian David Donald. It was called “The Civil War: An Excess of Democracy.”
    And in teaching I ran across a short story by Leo Tolstoy called “How much Land does a Man Need?”
    Both dealt with the issues of your essay today, Dr. Kennedy. Both of the sources I mention can be said to discuss “balance”. Imagine the teeter-totter when you were a kid. Balance was what we maintained to keep one end from hitting the ground, which made it useless, and the other end going up into the air where ‘WE” became useless – and sometimes scared.
    In the days leading up to the Civil War, the South was dealing with the issue of slavery, and slavery, being forced labor, did away with all semblance of ‘balance’ because one group – based on the color of their skin – got all the rewards of the land and the other group got nothing for their labor.
    In the Tolstoy, the man who undertook to walk the boundary of more land than anybody else, died of exhaustion just as he was getting to the finish line.
    Think of to whom he would have denied land that somebody else actually needed to care for THEIR family, if he had won. But, also think of the survivors of his own family – denied of his labor for the rest of their lives and his ability to earn a living for them.
    So, when we think of liberty & equality, we need to also ask things like – does my liberty to make billions of $$$ and become a trillionaire really offer me enough to survive – and others to survive at a decent standard of survival, or does the government giving me rebates and handouts and very low taxes cause poverty and joblessness to some. And, at the same time, if I walk the walk around the farm, is it really greed that I’m pursuing at the risk of harming my neighbors and my family?
    In sum, I’d say Sweden has a balanced society. We in the US – we have gotten very UNbalanced, and it all started with a fake philosophy called “trickle down” economics.

  17. My 2 cents:
    Scandinavia is much smaller than the whole of the United States, geographically and population. And has many ( and my opinion as I have not done a study ) less “tribes”. Denmark is mostly comprised of Danes, and so forth.
    As long as humans believe they “belong” to certain tribes and other tribes are, well, “other”, we will have this problem. I think this is built into our DNA but it is not inescapable!
    Until the whole of the country votes to raise taxes appropriately we need to heed the call ourselves as we are able, and I certainly realize that all are NOT able to do this.
    I paid the painters an extra $1000 when they finished our house. The very good electricians an extra $1000 as well. The bills were almost exactly the same. When we eat out I tip 40%. I think waiters still get $2.13 an hour. When I quit waiting tables in 1994, it was $2.10 an hour!
    Intermarriage is required to facilitate this! It’s all about tribalism which incorporates greed.

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