Taxation is an intense, emotional issue in the news and on the streets these days. I had an argument about it with a guy at work who advocated a flat income tax.
"But no politician, not even McCain, is calling for a flat income tax," I said. "The only person calling for a flat income tax is Joe the Plumber."
"Well, it's not fair," my friend said. "How is it fair that if I make more money than you I have to pay a higher percentage? Why should I be penalized for working harder?"
"Do the math," I said. "We spend money on things like roads and schools and defense. If we had a flat tax, there would be no way to raise our annual budget. No economist has ever been able to show how we could balance our budget with a flat tax unless we literally starved the middle class. So the only way to have a flat tax is to run up a big budget deficit, which by the way your damn Bush/McCain Republicans are very good at."
He pouted. "Well, it's not fair."
What this exchange and several like it have shown me is the intensity of feeling that taxation inspires. The American cry is "IT'S MY MONEY". Personally, I do not feel as concerned with specific income tax rates as many other Americans seem to. As a web developer, my annual earnings can vary greatly with the economic climate -- don't even talk to me about 2003 -- and my biggest concern is how much income I can earn each year, not the percentage I'll pay back in tax. I would rather a government that taxes reasonably to maintain a thriving economy than one that chooses frugality over common sense.
On the other hand, I do understand that many Americans feel very strongly that federal taxation is an inexcusable intrusion into their private rights, and I do even respect the fact that this corresponds in some way to the great American love of freedom that means as much to me as it does to any, say, tax-hating John McCain voter out there. I also think it must mean something that when Henry David Thoreau
famously went to jail for a day, his crime was refusing to pay taxes.
However, it's also worth noting that Thoreau did not refuse to pay tax for selfish reasons, but rather for a public cause: he was protesting legalized slavery in America.
The intense public discourse about taxation within the 2008 presidential election calls to mind a quote from the British philosopher John Stuart Mill, founder of a practical and democratic philosophy called Utilitarianism that has inspired both liberal and conservative politicians and pundits. Mill's philosophy is that government exists to maximize the shared happiness of all individuals within a society. The individual is the basic unit of government's every purpose, and every question is resolved by examining the various possible individual benefits and costs. As Mill says:
The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.
There is much to be gained from reading John Stuart Mill, but at the same time I don't think that political philosophy can stop here. Do we really exist only as individuals? I am a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a cousin and an uncle -- in all these ways I am committed to a unit of existence, a family, which is more than a collection of individuals but rather seems to be something alive in itself. I am also an employee of a company, a proud New Yorker, a Mets fan, an American and an ethnic Jew. In all of these ways, I am more than an individual, and nobody can tell me that I don't feel pain when any of my "groups" are hurt, or happy when any of my "groups" are doing well.
And yet altruism or group awareness does not play -- not even close -- in the 2008 Presidential campaign. Even Barack Obama, who in my opinion takes a much more practical and realistic stance on taxation than John McCain, will not suggest in public that wealthy American taxpayers ought to feel good about the chance to help their fellow citizens. The few times he's said anything along these lines, as when he mentioned "spreading the wealth around", his opponents have been able to roast him for it.
You know, I don't like paying taxes either. But it is worth stepping back and taking a deeper look at what the collective good -- the good of our own collectives, our families, our cities, our country, our world -- means to each of us, and why it does.
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Photo above from the excellent Library of Congress photo archive