Elitism and the progressive tax system
posted at 10:06 am on October 25, 2008 by Ed Morrissey
I read different blogs to get different perspectives and to keep up with the arguments on the Left, usually at sites with a mix of contributors like AOL’s Political Machine. Tommy Christopher both blogs and reports at the site, and while I disagree strenuously with Tommy, he’s a good writer and almost always worth a read. Yesterday, Tommy wrote an interesting defense of the progressive tax system and threw in some snark at elitism that once again shows a misunderstanding of the concept:
Now, I know that there are tens of millions of people who believe, as I do, that a progressive tax is about fairness, about not just the ability to pay, but the degree to which a wealthier person benefits from our common possessions. That position, like any that disagrees with a Republican position, has been dubbed “elitist.”
If that’s the case, then I say “Pass the arugula!” As I’ve said before, I come from a long line of working-class people, civil servants and tradesman, and I’m in the lower end of that economic bracket myself. Where I come from, a man takes care of his responsibilities and doesn’t complain. He pays his taxes. And when he gets somewhere, he remembers where he came from.
I would love to hear from all of the other “elitists” out there, the teacher, the construction worker, the waitress, the meatpacker, who think that people ought to pay their fair share. People who understand that the burden of these hard times is not falling on those who earn over $250,000.00. It’s “elitists” like us that have carried the weight.
First, let’s tackle his defense of the progressive tax system. Tommy claims that the federal government somehow benefits the wealthy more than the working class. I’m certain that will be news to both. To the extent that one can calculate direct benefits and costs, the cost burden already falls almost entirely on the higher earners. The top 25% pay 67% of the income taxes received by the government, and the top 10% of earners pay 46%. The bottom 50% of earners in this country pay less than 13% of income tax collected by the federal government. Direct benefits from government apply to those who pay less, not more, so the top earners don’t get direct return on their investment.
Ah, but Tommy argues that the federal government protects the rich, and therefore it’s right that they pay more. But the only manner in which the government protects the rich is in how they protect all of us — by defending private-property rights, defending the borders, and establishing the rule of law. All of that is neutral to the income level of the individual citizens of the US.
So why have a progressive tax system, meaning one in which rates increase with the level earned? After all, a flat-rate system would still ensure that the rich pay more in terms of gross dollars while ensuring that everyone pay the same percentage of income earned. Progressives don’t like that, though, because they want to have government determine winners and losers rather than allowing the talents and the work of individuals in a free market determine that. And note that I’m not talking about government spending (and the various programs that support lower-income families), but only the manner in which the government collects its income.
The progressive tax system serves two purposes. First, it punishes those who succeed. Second, it minimizes the negative impact of redistribution so that more people don’t object to it. A flat-rate tax could raise just as much money, but the redistribution would become more obvious — and unpopular.
That’s why Joe the Plumber’s objection resonates. Barack Obama wants government to determine what is excessive wealth and confiscate it because government will “spread the wealth” better than the individuals who earned it. That, in fact, is elitist, and Tommy doesn’t understand that. A plumber can be an elitist if he thinks that people can’t make decisions for themselves and need a small, select group of people to make decisions for them. Elitism doesn’t refer to people who sun themselves on yachts in Aruba, but to a governing philosophy that assumes that people can’t run their own lives and require others to make those decisions.
The basic question from Joe the Plumber comes down to who should spend the money people earn. If the answer given is “government”, then that’s the elitist answer. If the answer given is “the earner”, then that is the libertarian, free-market answer that supports self-government and private-property ownership. In fact, it also supports common sense. Why filter wealth through a huge bureaucracy when Joe the Plumber can spread the wealth for no additional cost at all, choosing his own winners and losers instead of a few elites in Washington doing it for him?
Update: Added a paragraph for clarity.