Politico Poll on Republican Tax Plan Is Proof That Democracy, on Its Own, Does Not Work
Looking back over the long march of human history, we see a phenomenon that has always been with us, its blood-stained footprints stretching back into the mists of primordial antiquity: The practice of some humans using other humans to get what they want.
Criminals, conquerors, and kings. Raiding parties, rape gangs, and retinues of useless courtiers living off taxes forcibly extracted from peasants. Anyone who exerts coercive force on someone else to get what they want is engaging in this practice. Anyone who allows, causes, or expects a third-party to exert such force on their behalf is also perpetrating, and perpetuating, this tragic aspect of human behavior.
Reading through the results of a recent Politico poll on the GOP tax plan was a reminder that though we have reduced some forms of human predation, others are alive and well. The problem is, some of these practices have metastasized themselves so far into our civilization, most people don’t even recognize them for what they are anymore. Proper exploration of this topic would take many pages, but simply put, we are not treating people equally in this country . . . and it’s not just in the ways you typically hear about.
A quick refresher . . .
All human beings are born equal. Not equal in ability (looks, strength, intelligence, motivation, etc.) but ontologically equal—that is, equal as a function of our very existence. No one is born to rule over others. There is no natural designation of highborn and lowborn. No divine right of kings. The concept of hereditary aristocracy is, and always was, a fiction. It has no basis in any natural phenomenon. If the concept of rights is to make any sense it all, it must include the notion that everyone has them in equal measure. No one has a greater right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness than another. Any government that fails to secure all individuals’ equal claim to rights is failing in a very fundamental way.
As comparatively free as we Americans are, this happens even here, and some of the biggest—but least noticed—examples are in our tax code.
Progressive taxation involves taxing various levels of income at different rates. This is essentially saying to one human being that his property is subject to forcible confiscation at a higher rate than another human being’s—that his property rights are, in essence, less valuable than another’s property rights, simply by virtue of how much he makes. One of the myriad ways this unequal treatment is justified is by saying something like, “Hey, each person’s income in each bracket is taxed at that bracket’s rate; so, since we all could theoretically end up with income in any bracket, we’re all being treated equally.”
In practice, this is nonsense.
First, you could pass any law granting some group special privileges and then justify it by saying that anyone can theoretically become part of that group. We could say that since doctors add so much value to society, every med student will receive, at taxpayer expense, a luxury sedan upon graduation. “Hey, it’s a free country—anyone can choose to practice medicine.”
Second, the staged brackets end up being of little meaning to a person who has made a lot of money. Someone who is married, filing separately, will be taxed at a rate of 39.6% on everything over $225,000. If he makes ten million dollars, then the fact that the first 225K of that is taxed at lower rates is a distinction without a difference. He is being taxed at a rate that is different from the rate other citizens are taxed.
This is not the same as a rich person paying more in absolute dollars. Ten percent of a million is a lot more than ten percent of 30,000. You could justify a single flat rate on the notion that it truly does treat everyone equally, in that it says no matter who you are, we will take taxes from you at the same rate as everyone else. But progressive taxation is the rest of us telling a rich person, “We get a greater percent of your stuff because of who you are.”
Human beings are supposed to have equal claim to our rights. Taxing rich people at a different rate violates that equal claim. Doing so dehumanizes them. It says, “You have less claim to enjoyment of your rights than another.” Unfortunately, even when I can get someone to recognize this, they often retreat to a corner and then say, “Yeah, but it’s okay to do that to them—they’re rich.”
We also see the phenomenon of unequal treatment in the myriad tax “breaks” that you can get if you are a member of a particular cohort. This is directly violative of equal claim, in that some people are receiving special treatment that others don’t get. It also forces those who don’t get the break to pick up a little bit more of the tab to cover for the people who do. Insult to injury. One example . . . While I definitely believe marriage to be one of the most important building blocks of a healthy society, a tax break for married people is unfair to unmarried humans every bit as much as a marriage penalty is unfair to humans who have chosen to wed. Our tax code is swarming with a seemingly endless variety of examples of unequal treatment, many of which are deeply entrenched and have the support of a vocal and powerful constituency.
Society ought to be constructed so that everyone’s rights are equally protected. Instead, what we have is a scrum of interests groups—gangs competing to use the levers of power to get what they want at others’ expense. I’m pretty sure that’s not how the Founding Fathers wanted things to be. Things aren’t as bad here as they could be, of course, but we’re certainly not headed in the right direction.
The way poll questions are constructed, and answered, on questions about the tax code indicates just how far we’ve slid.
“Less popular [is] increasing the threshold for the estate tax to $10 million and later eliminating it (35 percent)”
People should not be able to do what they want with what they have earned and built over a lifetime. They should have their choice taken, and their beneficiaries robbed of the opportunity to continue using those assets. They should pay more so that I can pay less. After all, no one is leaving me an estate or a family farm.
“Fifty-nine percent of voters say that reducing the tax rate for small businesses should be in the legislation, compared to just 35 percent support for lowering the corporate tax rate.”
“Corporation” has an ugly ring in the ears of some, but “small business” sounds noble—in other words, we should treat the humans who own various kinds of businesses unequally because of how we feel. Hey, why shouldn’t that be a basis for tax policy?
“A little more than a third, 36 percent, think the new plan would have a positive impact on people like them, while 25 percent say it would have a negative impact and 19 percent don’t think it would have much impact at all. The remaining 20 percent don’t know what impact it would have on people like them.”
“People like them.” It’s not about creating a society that treats everyone equally. It’s about people figuring out how they can use the power of the state to extract stuff from other people. As my wife likes to say when mocking selfish behavior, ” It’s all about meeeeeeeeeeee!”
Year after year, century after century, this continues to be a problem. We’ve come a long way, but perhaps not as far as we think. We understand the principles of human rights better than we did in millennia past, but pursuing our objectives—as individuals or banded together in groups—continues to take precedence over respect for rights. People like to virtue-signal about how they support treating people equally on issues like marriage, but until they stop trying to extract property from others, their noble claims ring hollow.
We’re not supposed to be creating a tax code that will have a “positive impact on people like me.” Not if we want to claim that we are a free, rights-respecting country. We should be creating a tax code that treats people’s rights equally. Democracy, on its own, is not sufficient. We’ve protected rights from kings and nobles. Now it’s time to protect rights from voting majorities.
I am not naive. I recognize that this understanding of rights, though widespread in revolutionary and Colonial-era America, has slipped dramatically in modern times. I know that there is an Overton Window that must be moved before we can create policies that truly comport with this philosophy—that creating such a tax code right out of the gate will not be possible. I am fine with legislation that moves us in a better direction, even if it does not get us all the way there.
But we need to at least be having this conversation. And the fact that to many Americans, what I have written here sounds like crazy-talk, or some obscure alien language, shows just how far we still have to go to build a truly just society.
Ardently devoted to the cause of human freedom, he has worked at the confluence of politics, activism, and public policy for more than a decade. He co-wrote a ten-part series of video shorts on economics, and has film credits as a researcher on 11 political documentaries, including Citizens United's notorious film on Hillary Clinton that became the subject of a landmark Supreme Court decision. He is the founder of several activist endeavors, including AnyStreet.org (now a part of Western Free Press) and Liberatchik.com. He is currently the managing editor of and principal contributor to WesternFreePress.com.
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