Beyond the dueling sound bites and apocalyptic rhetoric of Washington’s increasingly desperate battle of the budget, President Obama enjoys an automatic advantage with his relentless calls to tax the rich. These demands resonate with the deep American instinct to endorse the underdog, while punishing (or at least diminishing) the privileged and the powerful.
The Republicans may insist with flawless logic that placing additional burdens on the nation’s most productive citizens does nothing to create private sector jobs: after all, how will seizing profits from business people help them to invest or expand with their reduced resources? But in the arena of public opinion, arguments must appeal to emotion as well as common sense and reach the heart rather than merely persuading the mind. It’s not enough to demonstrate that attacking the rich is misguided in practice; it’s also essential to show that it’s wrong as a matter of principle.
The only way to overcome the traditional populist preference for “the people over the powerful” is through impassioned affirmation of another long-standing national value: the conviction that beneficial behavior deserves better results and more encouragement than destructive, damaging courses of action. Americans may not favor rich over poor, but they certainly don’t prefer the irresponsible to the productive, or the hapless over the helpful. Sure, most of us who felt like geeks and losers in high school may harbor envious resentment toward the class presidents and prom queens, but that doesn’t mean we want them punished with unmerited detentions or unearned bad grades for their popularity and success.
When you consider people who’ve created wealth and built beautiful lives for their families, it’s natural and healthy to want to emulate them. But it’s profoundly unhealthy to want to annihilate them.
After all, the rich in this country for the most part do precisely what we hope all Americans will do with their lives: working hard, earning money, paying taxes, and spending or investing what’s left. Industrious pursuit of profit remains the best way to stimulate recovery and prosperity, and most people understand that we should welcome, not discourage, the continuation of this pattern.
Poor people, on the other hand, need to change – and they know it. No one wants to remain destitute and dependent, or to pass on that condition to future generations. But in order to live middle class lives, members of the underclass need to learn middle class habits, and to leave behind the dysfunctional values that characterize our most persistent pockets of poverty. Even the most committed conservatives and free marketers acknowledge that this process often requires outside help – in mastering new skills, providing better schools, sustaining more durable family arrangements, building safer, more economically viable neighborhoods.
But such assistance only benefits the recipients (not to mention society at large) when it leads them to alter the conduct that’s trapped them in hopeless indigence in the first place. Every kind-hearted individual can feel sympathy for the bedraggled homeless panhandler on skid row, but that doesn’t make it a good idea to facilitate his life on the streets indefinitely. A compassionate society rightly hopes to rescue its least fortunate members, but promoting the continuation and extension of destructive behavior does no favors for the downtrodden.
Government policies on taxes and spending inevitably impact private decisions of every sort, and sanity and decency both demand rewarding helpful choices while discouraging hurtful options. We tax tobacco heavily, and those burdens have played an undeniable role in dramatically reduced smoking rates. At the same time, we spend lavishly with subsidized loans and outright grants to promote college education and fifty years of those federal and state subsidies nearly tripled the percentage of young people pursuing higher education.
In that context, it makes no sense to penalize people with higher tax rates who toil ceaselessly to claw their way up the economic ladder. Their effort and imagination add jobs and growth while subtracting nothing from the society at large.
When President Obama pushes the idea of “taxing the rich” he’s actually talking about taxing those who are trying to get rich. His desired wealth increases won’t so much impact the “millionaires and billionaires” who draw his derision as it will cripple those eager strivers who hope someday to become millionaires and billionaires. The federal tax authorities don’t go after wealth but rather grab their share from income, hampering earning not luxurious living.
This explains the puzzling predisposition of progressive plutocrats who live primarily off their investments (or who won life’s lottery with inherited fortunes like the Kennedys or Rockefellers) to favor high tax rates on top earners. It’s not really noble or unselfish for those who have already earned their pile to seek to place new obstacles on hard-driving, up-and-coming challengers who seek to enter the charmed circle of privilege.
Those obstacles, however, will hardly benefit the nation as a whole. Isn’t it obvious that America needs more, not fewer, millionaires? And we want the numbers of poor and dependent people to shrink, not multiply.
While the left tries to foment indignation against wealth-creators, conservatives should respond with outrage at the moral inversion at the core of contemporary liberalism. Though progressives trumpet “fairness” as its guiding priority there’s nothing fair about society and government conferring generous dispensations on dysfunctional, dependent conduct and onerous special burdens on those who enrich both themselves and others. It is both unwise and, at the deepest level, unjust to promote hatred and resentment where gratitude is due and to offer indulgence and support for values that require correction.
The Talmud sagely observes that “those who are kind when they ought to be cruel will end by being cruel when they ought to be kind.” Today’s liberal imperatives violate both practicality and ethics when they make it harder to get rich, and easier to stay poor.