Tag Archives: redistribution

The “Liberty/Equality” Conundrum

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. I once traced Indiana’s welfare system back to the 15th Century English Poor Laws- laws that prohibited 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 access 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 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, let’s ask a different question.

If a 10% increase in your taxes could be shown to provide public services  allowing 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.


A Question of Taxes

A couple of days ago, my class preparation required that I review an early American time-period that included both Shays Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion. Both–as those of you familiar with this particular time period will recall–were uprisings sparked by resistance to taxes.

Some things really never change.

I am not sufficiently familiar with citizens’ attitudes in other countries to be certain of this, but it certainly seems that this characteristic American anti-tax animus is unique; a piece of a none-too-attractive “American exceptionalism.” (When was the last time you saw Norwegians mounting a tax protest?)  Americans are allergic to taxes, no matter how reasonable, no matter how necessary.

There are a couple of problems with this deeply-ingrained resentment. The first and most obvious is that it is unrealistic–not to mention unseemly–to demand services for which we are unwilling to pay. Someone once noted that taxes are the dues we pay for civilization, and I think that’s right. But the same Americans who would never dream of joining a country club and refusing to pay the dues needed to maintain the golf course and hire the help evidently have a very different reaction to assessments for membership in the polity. (Much of that animus seems based upon distaste for their fellow “members”–perhaps the problem is that we are fellow-denizens of a “club” they wouldn’t have chosen..?)

The second problem with the “pox on all taxes” attitude is that it focuses attention on the wrong issues. Governments require revenue in order to provide services; that’s a given. The questions we really need to ask are procedural: what is the best way to raise the dollars needed? Is the tax system fair and equitable? Does it inadvertently encourage unwanted behaviors (outsourcing of jobs, or shielding of assets in off-shore accounts) or discourage desirable ones? Are units of government operating efficiently?

It’s hard to ask those questions–let alone debate the answers–when people are whining about “redistribution,” and complaining about paying their share.

Class Warfare

One of the reasons I left the GOP was impatience with party rhetoric equating taxes with theft.

It seems to have become a Republican article of faith that it is “immoral” to tax people for the services they receive, let alone for purposes of redistribution (i.e., using tax dollars to help poor folks). Those who work, we are told, should be allowed to retain the fruits of their labor. (I guess it is impertinent to ask what portion of those “fruits” are the result of living in a society that provides roads and bridges on which to ship goods, police protection of social order, courts to enforce contracts, and all the other infrastructure necessary to conduct a trade or business.)

So how do these principled critics of redistribution and “theft” justify the Wisconsin Governor’s attack on public workers—and his effort to take money from them in order to enrich the wealthy?

It should be emphasized that public workers in Wisconsin are not responsible for the state’s fiscal problems, and stripping them of their bargaining rights won’t solve those problems. According to reports in the New York Times and elsewhere, the Governor was the one who precipitated the state’s projected $137 million shortfall. Just last month, he and the Republican-controlled legislature gave away $117 million in tax breaks, mostly to businesses and for private health savings accounts.

If it weren’t for those tax breaks, according to the state’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the state would have had a surplus.

It’s interesting. Every time someone suggests reversing the Bush tax cuts for the richest 2%—tax cuts that left current rates at their lowest point in fifty years—the GOP screams about “class warfare.” I want to know why it is class warfare when we ask the rich to pay their fair share, but it isn’t class warfare to take money from hardworking public servants to pay for tax breaks for the rich.

I’d also like to know when the party of fiscal responsibility became the party that robs the poor to give to the rich.

I guess redistribution is okay when it’s upward.