Monday, September 14, 2015

How should we talk about taxes?

The pernicious influence of right-wing ideology is often best demonstrated when it infiltrates nominally progressive discourse. Consider for example this argument by Lakoff, where he is actually trying to contest right-wing ideology:
Taxes are what you pay to live in America—to have democracy, opportunity, government services, and the vast infrastructure build by previous taxpayers—the highways, the internet, the schools, scientific research, the court system, etc. Taxes are membership fees used to maintain and expand services and the infrastructure.
Remarkably, this passage is meant to offer "another way to think about taxes" - but even as he tries to oppose the right, Lakoff grants them a crucial premise.

For the American right, taxes are a coercive transaction, and thus often tantamount to theft, since they deprive people of property that they're entitled to. For Lakoff, meanwhile, enjoyment of government services legitimizes the transaction as voluntary. In both cases, however, the citizen has given something of theirs to the government. Even in Lakoff's case, the property initially belonged to the person paying taxes; one cannot ordinarily pay "membership fees" with someone else's money.

These frames may be popular and intuitive, but they're at direct odds with a standard moral justification for taxation: "where possessions have have been acquired through unjust processes, purposive takings may be required to restore rightful possession." By this conception - I'll call it restorative taxation - taxes are not in any meaningful sense "what you pay" to the government, because the wealth was never yours to begin with. You may have temporarily acquired it in some way, but you did not earn it, and are not entitled to keep it.

Politically, the need for restorative taxation is almost universally accepted - though under different terminology, such as forfeiture, where the state seizes possessions and returns them to their rightful owner. Even Ayn Rand endorses this: without a state to provide remedy in such cases,

the victim would have no recourse except to seize the offender’s property as compensation. But here again, the use of force cannot be left to the decision of private individuals. And this leads to one of the most important and most complex functions of the government: to the function of an arbiter who settles disputes among men according to objective laws.
These points may seem trivial, but they are (again) directly at odds with popular notions about taxes. For instance, not only do they completely obliterate the libertarian "taxation is theft" slogan, but they also undercut what was supposed to be one of President Obama's most radical speeches on redistribution:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me—because they want to give something back. They know they didn't—look, if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own... If you've got a business—you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.
Obama's argument for redistribution is compelling on its own terms, but it still concedes too much when it argues that the wealthy should "give something back." Put properly, the wealthy aren't "giving" anything back - those funds always belonged to society, and society is merely reasserting control of them. This is critically different from the liberal formulation, which maintains that the rich have property rights, but asks that they be waived for one reason or another.

In fact, ultimately, restorative taxation asks nothing of the wealthy at all, except that they refrain from asserting private property claims over holdings that are not rightfully theirs. This is a pretty trivial expectation, and one that most Americans would accept as legitimate and just. We can quibble over how much property the rich deserve in the first place, but there is no reason to simply assume that the distribution is already perfect, or to reject restorative taxation as an in principle violation of property rights.