Green Room

No, taxes shouldn’t be a “fairness” issue

posted at 3:50 pm on January 28, 2012 by

What are we, six years old?  Taxes should pay for the costs of government.  That’s what we have taxes for.

The proper purpose of taxes is not to establish a condition of “fairness.”  It’s to pay for government:  a legislature, executive, military, police, firefighting, courts, schools.  But for 100 years now, the percentage-based income tax has been shifting public dialogue on taxes steadily away from their proper purpose, and toward increasingly juvenile arguments over “fairness,” as if the tax code is like Mom, telling Makayla to share the toys and be patient because Brendan is little.

If we let taxation be about “fairness,” rather than paying for the cost of government, the two big problems we have are defining “fairness,” and defining the role of government in promoting it.  Those questions will never be settled to the satisfaction of all.

It might seem that the first question – “what is fair?” – is the more contentious one.  We discuss it incessantly, after all.  But the more fundamental question is actually what government should be doing about fairness.  The freighted nature of our discussions about fairness is largely relieved if we assign a limited, utilitarian role to government.  It doesn’t much matter what other people think is “fair,” in a lengthy list of situations, if they can’t harness the power of the armed state to enforce it on their fellow men.

Thus, I reject the whole idea that government needs to keep an eye on the citizens’ incomes, and worry about “fairness” as if the numbers are a meaningful indicator of it.  For much of American history, no government at any level actually knew how much income individual citizens had.  That was not a problem.  It didn’t need correction.  We could do away with virtually our entire tax code, if we did away with the modern idea that government needs to know what our incomes are.

We would also do away with the various ugly arguments that pit citizen against citizen in a do-loop of unrequitable resentments.  No, childless people shouldn’t have to pay proportionally more in taxes than people with children do.  No, married people with two incomes should not have to pay a “marriage penalty” in their tax bill.  Neither demographic is battening on the other with its life choices.  But however we feel about that issue, we could avoid the argument altogether, if the tax code didn’t creep around after us inquiring into our incomes and household arrangements.

Obviously, we should all obey the law as it exists today; the point here is that we once handled these issues in a way less susceptible to demagoguery, government interventionism, and social conflict – and we could do so again.  The way to discuss the tax code is not in terms of “fairness,” as if the government should be charged with using taxation to establish conditions according to a “fairness” index, but in terms of what needs paying for and how we’re going to collect revenue for that purpose.

In our pre-16th Amendment days, the federal government collected taxes on imports, liquor, and cigarettes.  It also collected, and continues to collect, fees for various kinds of concessions, such as mining, drilling for oil and gas, cutting timber, fishing, and so forth.  State and local governments collected taxes primarily on real property.  With the automation of market transactions, sales taxes have become a widespread method of collecting revenue for state and local governments.

These methods of tax collection can be pursued without knowing what anyone’s income is or what his household arrangements are.  The first question about government knowing these things is why it needs to at all.  Taxes can be collected in different ways; it is not as though government can only tax us effectively if it knows all our financial, family, and household business.  Many things that are crimes today are crimes only because government now insists on having this information about us.

I consider it a very low-payoff proposition for conservatives to continue to debate tax “fairness” as if we are in a closed-loop system with our tax code, and no alternative is imaginable.  The mechanism of automated payroll withholding has made percentage-based income taxation convenient, but not more so than automated sales taxes, or property taxes escrowed with mortgage payments.  There are alternatives.

The real question is whether our citizenry has the maturity and largeness of mind to accept the idea of government that is not chartered to be our Mom, knowing all our business and ordering us to share the toys.  Such a government would have, for starters, a lot less to do.  It would cost us less, and be less exploitable by demagogues and special interests.  That would be OK with me – I can go the rest of my life without knowing what Bill Gates’ income is, or Warren Buffett’s, or Warren Buffett’s secretary’s.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.

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The real question is whether our citizenry has the maturity and largeness of mind to accept the idea of government that is not chartered to be our Mom, knowing all our business and ordering us to share the toys.

Are you kidding me?! We’re long past that point! When I can say “I want our politicians to follow the constitution” and all I get in return from my fellow voters is, “Well, no one’s perfect,” that’s a pretty good indication to me that America is already over.

gryphon202 on January 28, 2012 at 4:08 PM

No property taxes. We should not be renters to the government. Local, state or federal. We should own the land we have bought. Property taxes is nothing but governmental overreach. property taxes are a way to stop generational wealth accumalation. As the taxes become so high older generations on fixed incomes can not afford the taxes and must sell.

unseen on January 28, 2012 at 4:20 PM

No property taxes. We should not be renters to the government. Local, state or federal. We should own the land we have bought. Property taxes is nothing but governmental overreach. property taxes are a way to stop generational wealth accumalation. As the taxes become so high older generations on fixed incomes can not afford the taxes and must sell.

unseen on January 28, 2012 at 4:20 PM

I agree with you in principle, but I find that in practice property taxes do not necessarily mean an undue tax burden. I come from one of the few states that has a property tax and sales tax, but NO state income tax. At this point, I’m far more worried about the federal snow job that is the sixteenth amendment.

gryphon202 on January 28, 2012 at 4:27 PM

Very thought-provoking piece, J.E. Sadly, almost everyone on the left (and tragically many on the right) has stuck his fingers in his ears and is humming. Liberals, and especially members of the political class, understand that Obama has nothing else to run on besides class warfare, and they’ll thank you not to mention the “proper purpose” of taxes.

Howard Portnoy on January 28, 2012 at 5:11 PM

gryphon202 on January 28, 2012 at 4:27 PM

would rather see tarrifs and sales taxes. no sin taxes, no property taxes and no income taxes. those that make the most will still pay the most taxes as they also tend to consume the most and buy the more expansive products. So the dems looking for fairness will be well served.

unseen on January 28, 2012 at 5:27 PM

would rather see tarrifs and sales taxes. no sin taxes, no property taxes and no income taxes. those that make the most will still pay the most taxes as they also tend to consume the most and buy the more expansive products. So the dems looking for fairness will be well served.

unseen on January 28, 2012 at 5:27 PM

Like I said, I agree with you in principle. But I’m from South Dakota where “fairness” in the tax code is never an issue. We do more than pay lip service to the “taxes should fund government” school of thought. And until we get over the notion that “fairness” deserves any seat at the table of principle in taxation, the places where our taxation come from won’t really matter.

gryphon202 on January 28, 2012 at 6:58 PM

@Howard, when you say “on the right” I think you misestimate what the country is. The mainstream is completely on the left, and this includes the so-called TEA Party. Those on the right are the voices crying from the wilderness, and the body politic would rather that things keep on keeping on and will gladly listen to someone that tells them that a little tweaking will make it alright again.

Quartermaster on January 28, 2012 at 7:43 PM

In his book Eat The Rich, P.J. O’Rourke has a short passage on fairness at the end.

So if wealth is not a worldwide round-robin of purse snatching, and if the thing that makes you rich doesn’t make me poor, why should we care about fairness at all? We shouldn’t

Fairness is a good thing in marriage and at the day-care center. It’s a nice little domestic virtue. But a liking for fairness is not that noble a sentiment. Fairness doesn’t rank with charity, love, duty, or self-sacrifice. And there’s always a tinge of self-seeking in making sure that things are fair. Don’t you go trying to get one up on me.

He then discusses the 10th Commandment, which prohibits God’s children from coveting their neighbors’ goods. and concludes that the message it sends is that if you want what your neighbor has, go get one of your own.

The Tenth Commandment sends a message to socialists, to egalitarians, to people obsesses with fairness, to American Presidential candidates in the year 2000 — to everyone who believes that wealth should be redistributed. And the message is clear and concise. Go to hell.

KGB on January 28, 2012 at 8:27 PM

When Obama redistributes his book royalties to everyone involved in the production, distribution and sales of his book, I will know he believes in fairness. When George Clooney or other actors fight to have everyone on set, writers, and everyone involved with their films make the same amount as them, I will know they believe in fairness. When Michael Moore earns the same as everyone he works with, I will believe him about fairness. They all want us to be fair and support everyone else. A citizen does not owe its government for all his success. If Obama believed in fairness his brother would not live in a hut, his aunt and uncle would not live in public housing. He should start with his own life as an example. I still won’t subscribe to his ideology about fairness, but I would start to think he did.

stexas on January 29, 2012 at 9:35 AM

What has happened to equal protection under the law? That alone, should give us the flat tax. The govt has a lot of smart guys, who, instead of figuring out ways to steal our money, could figure out ways to live within what they take from us.

Kissmygrits on January 29, 2012 at 9:37 AM

would rather see tarrifs and sales taxes. no sin taxes, no property taxes and no income taxes. those that make the most will still pay the most taxes as they also tend to consume the most and buy the more expansive products. So the dems looking for fairness will be well served.

unseen on January 28, 2012 at 5:27 PM

Tariffs and sales taxes do severe damage to economic activity. Part of the current prosperity has been the move away from them for the funding of the government. The only tax should be the income tax, with all of the things that property taxes pay for being fee-for-service. Of course, deductions and credits in the tax code should be banned outright.
Assuming, that is, that we are talking about ideal states rather than what is politically possible.

Count to 10 on January 29, 2012 at 10:22 AM

Howard Portnoy on January 28, 2012 at 5:11 PM

One thing I learned as an intel officer in the Navy is that people do hear, even if many of them either don’t respond at first, or actively reject a new proposition. It’s very, very common for the people who tell you you’re stupid one day to be singing your song the next.

This response actually goes for gryphon2′s initial post as well. I know there are a lot of Americans now who have never been challenged to develop a mature philosophy on life. But the only way they will be is to hear things they haven’t had to think about before. They won’t necessarily respond at all at first, and some of them will respond with hostility.

But more of them than you might imagine will be thinking about it. Ideas stick. It just takes most of us time to process them. For the vast majority of people, what hasn’t been pounded into us as children will only be learned through painful experience. But I think most of us can relate to the proposition that when we are undergoing those painful experiences, the wise words we heard from others at various times in out lives come back to us. We remember that someone told us how this thing worked — and that shapes our response in a “learning” situation.

If no one takes the trouble to outline the ideas, however, then each failure in that regard is an opportunity lost.

J.E. Dyer on January 29, 2012 at 12:24 PM

KGB on January 28, 2012 at 8:27 PM

Thanks, KGB. Nice passage from P.J., one of my all-time favorite humor writers.

J.E. Dyer on January 29, 2012 at 12:32 PM

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Comments have been closed on this post but the discussion continues here.

Allahpundit on January 29, 2012 at 5:54 PM

Tariffs and sales taxes do severe damage to economic activity. Part of the current prosperity has been the move away from them for the funding of the government. The only tax should be the income tax, with all of the things that property taxes pay for being fee-for-service. Of course, deductions and credits in the tax code should be banned outright.
Assuming, that is, that we are talking about ideal states rather than what is politically possible.

Count to 10 on January 29, 2012 at 10:22 AM

So, do tell. How did we fund government before the federal income tax was instituted in 1913?

gryphon202 on January 29, 2012 at 2:06 PM