No one likes to pay taxes. In large part, the Conservative movement was built on that fact. Virtually every successful conservative issue has had an anti-tax component. But until Progressives challenge Conservatives head-on with this issue, any victory will be limited and temporary.
When I teach Intro to American Government, we talk about our country being founded on the principle of “no taxation without representation”. Our founders understood that a government, if it is to exist, must be able to procure goods and services. To do that, a government must either be able to tax or it must take whatever it wants whenever it wants. Having labored under the latter system, our founders opted for the former.
The obvious correlation is that embracing taxation, with adequate and accountable representation, is a defense of liberty. In fact, it is a primary defense of liberty that forces the government to turn towards the governed for permission to act. This is why Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked, “Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.” The truth of the matter is that much of Modern Conservatism is nothing more than a call for a life that Thomas Hobbes called “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.
It is unlikely that our political leaders will be able to make such theoretical arguments directly – the truth is that politicians rarely “lead” so much as they run to the foreground and claim to have been there all the time. But an argument that our politicians can make is to turn the debate from “low taxes” to “proper taxes”. Every time a conservative says taxes are too high, they should hear a reply along the lines of, “What level of taxation would you consider appropriate?”
The cognitive dissonance set up by the questioning of “proper taxation” creates a space in which Progressives can act. With no short supply of footage showing heiresses behaving badly, MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16” and “Cribs” airing regularly, or celebrity antics of sports and film stars; Progressives should not be called on to justify taxing the multi-millionaire population at a just and fair rate – it should be on Conservatives to justify why such people really need a few more percentage points shaved off of their tax rate.
Progressive politicians can also make a moral argument for restructuring the existing tax system. The standard deduction that millions of Americans take without a second thought is a Progressive tip of the hat to the notion that a family should be able to provide for itself before it begins to provide for government. Given that idea, the current level of $5,350 for a single person and twice that for a couple is absurdly low.
Setting that deduction as much as three times higher is easily justifiable and would not be difficult to accomplish in the current anti-tax atmosphere. Not only would it offer the exact same savings to every single taxpayer (thus it cannot be said to be “unfair”), but it would take a large step towards making our current system much more progressive. It would also go towards fixing some of the problems with the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) by giving it a huge adjustment for inflation.
Beyond the standard deduction lies the arena of taxable income – and our current system is set to place two-thirds of the entire increase in taxes squarely upon the shoulders of eighty-five percent of the population. The current tax system raises rates in steps of 10%, 5%, 10%, 3%, 5%, and 2%, in ascending order. It is easily seen that tax rates rise much more steeply at the lower end of the scale than at the upper end.
Once a person’s income breaks over into taxable income, they face and immediate ten percent tax increase. Yet a person making $149,000 will face only a two percent increase on the next two hundred thousand dollars of income – and after that they will face no increase at all no matter how much money they make. Reversing the rates of increase for the tax brackets – making it 2%, 5%, 3%, 10%, 5%, and 10% in ascending order – would cut taxes for more than 97% of Americans and raise taxes on no one.
Yet it would allow someone with $7,824 of taxable income to keep an additional $625.92 per year. A two-earner family making the national median of $48,201 would have their taxes cut to $3,473.35 – from the current level of $8,474. The only people unaffected by the tax cuts would be those who make more than approximately $350,000 – and their taxes would be unchanged. It would be hard, indeed, for Conservatives to charge that Progressives were “out to soak the rich” when the wealthiest would face no increase in taxes whatsoever.
This reduction in taxes, especially if both proposals were enacted, would necessarily cause a budget deficit. But Conservatives have told us for the entire Bush Presidency that budget deficits don’t matter! Well, if deficits don’t matter when we are sending billions overseas to Iraq, then they surely can’t matter when we are putting money back into the pockets of 98% of American families.
The resulting economic boom would be built up from the ground floor. Low income families could afford to rely less on government welfare programs and more on their own ability to earn. Higher income families could afford health insurance and perhaps send their kids to college without taking out punitive levels of loans. Each dollar handed back to the lower levels of the income would be multiplied repeatedly as it was spent and spent again, creating economic well-being as it flowed through the economy.
As easy as these victories appear, Conservatives will not simply roll over and play dead. They have invested too much time and money into creating an illusory ideology that worships personal greed and decries government action as inherently evil. It will be a fight to the death – but it is a fight well worth waging. It is a fight too important not to fight.