Occassional reflections of a moderate (hey at least I think I am)

Monday, May 02, 2005

Just Taxation

Matthew Iglesias points me to a very important question being discussed over at Unqualified Offerings namely: “Would you identify any particular level of taxation as unjust?”

Here is my quaint (but unsexy) answer: The level of taxation is unjust if it results in revenues to the State that exceed the amount of money the State needs to perform the operations that the State has undertaken.

The inverse of this is that it is unjust for the State to spend more than it takes in, thereby running up substantial structural deficits.

(In neither instance would I require “exact” balancing. And I do believe that in some instances deficits are a good thing for short periods.)

The comments at both Yglesias’ and Unqualified Offerings’ site are interesting. Some of them demonstrate why some liberal arguments are like nails on a chalk board to me. For instance, Yglesias himself worries about the dreaded “sodomy tax” and a commenter at Unqualified Offerings tries to turn the question around by asking: “Is there any particular degree of wealth difference between the wealthiest and poorest quintiles of the population that’d strike you as unjust/immoral/unfair?”

It seems to me if you really want to turn the question around you should ask: “What level of government activities should be going on?” This used to be the traditional conservative vs. liberal debate. I once told my father (who is a consistent Republican voter) that conservatives don’t believe in lower taxes, they believe in smaller government and one of the consequences of smaller government is that you need less tax revenue to support government operations.

Some commenters at both sites say, quite rightly, that the necessary level depends on the circumstances. If we are at war, they argue, the level of justification is much higher to tax people at a high rate. This is the “conservative” argument that national defense is a core item that the State must provide. The difficulty with the current Republican Party is that the notion of what is “core” has expanded greatly. Is it unjust to tax people at 40% so that we can have a medicare prescription drug benefit? I would suggest that if it is, then we should look at getting rid of the drug benefit rather than complaining about actually paying for it. If democrats were derided as “tax and spend liberals” I wonder what moniker we should hang on the current administration and congress? “Debt Loving Republicans”? (If the liberal obfuscation is like nails on a chalk board, I cannot begin to describe how I react to the failure of Republicans to demonstrate anything resembling responsibility.)

My brother, who is considerably more “conservative” than I am, once argued to me that taxation for purposes of redistribution was “immoral” because it has the effect of the beneficiary “enslaving” the person paying the tax. Whether or not he is right, it seems to me this argument is even stronger inter-generationally. If we expend more than we have to spend we are “enslaving” subsequent generations that have to pay that burden and, unlike in the situation of redistributive programs, those being “enslaved” due to inter-generational transfers do not have an adequate voice in the process.

{Note: I fully comprehend that I am not talking about the same thing the others are. It just seems to me that before we decide who should pay, we should first decide that we should actually pay for the State’s activities. Put differently, who pays is quite irrelevant if we are not going to make serious attempts to actually pay the bill.}

[UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan links to this Cato Report which documents the Republicans’ spending ways.]


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