It was the top question of the night. Napa Tea Party Teen Tyler Hensley stood up at Monday’s CNN/Tea Party Express debate and asked the GOP presidential candidates, “Out of every dollar that I earn, how much do you think I deserve to keep?” And conservatives everywhere wished Hensley could have put his question directly to the president.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) is no Barack Hussein Obama, but she did recently reply to Hensley’s query on the Don Wade and Roma show on WLS-AM. Her answer was instructive.
On some level, Schakowsky is right. The question is far more complicated than it appears.
At first glance, it’s tempting to reduce the argument for little to no taxation to this: “He who possesses it (money, land, whatever) ought to keep it regardless of whether he deserves it simply because it’s his.” Nobody has the right to forcibly take what’s not his — it’s called stealing. But, as appealing as it is to equate government taxing and spending with stealing, in a constitutional republic like ours, it’s simply not.
The federal government has property rights, too. For, in the end, a property right is simply “the exclusive authority to determine how a resource is used.” Sad to say it, but the government does have that authority over the resource of our tax dollars. But, crucially, it derives that authority from our consent, the consent we express in the U.S. Constitution, which does give the federal government the power to tax (although it’s worth noting that it originally wasn’t constitutional to tax income — it took the 16th Amendment for that). When the federal government taxes us, then, it doesn’t really take our money. We freely — if indirectly — choose to appropriate our money to the federal government by voting in the Congress that establishes the tax rates in the first place. We consent to giving the federal government authority over a particular portion of our private resources, making those private resources public. In effect, we cede our right to that property to the federal government. The federal government, then, has a right to our tax dollars because we give it that right.
The question, then, is not: How much money do our representatives in government believe we deserve to keep? Rather, it is: How much do we think we deserve to keep, to command as we wish? How much do we think the government deserves to command, to use for those few things that only the collective can provide (e.g. defense!)? In other words, it is ever and always a question about the size, scope and purpose of government. And our opinion on that will necessarily inform whom we elect.
This raises another question: Why don’t liberals think they deserve to keep more of their money than they do? The first part of Hensley’s question reveals the answer. He didn’t ask, “Of every dollar I possess, how much do I deserve to keep?” He asked, “Of every dollar that I earn, how much do I deserve to keep?” For there are many means by which we come by property and not all of them involve earning. But what we earn, we are much more loathe to part with stupidly. That might explain why earners don’t exactly want to hand their hard-earned cash to a government that has proved itself, time and again, to be horribly irresponsible with tax dollars.