“Their Fair Share”

I took a class in college in African American Literature. An interesting “chicken or the egg” issue came up early on: America didn’t participate in slavery because it was a fundamentally racist society, America developed racism because it embraced slavery. It was in the 18th century, for example, that American seminaries started teaching future ministers that black people didn’t have souls.

Why did such odious ideas arise? Because of cognitive dissonance–people couldn’t stand enslaving others if they were equally human, so they had to start thinking of them as something less than normal to assuage their consciences.

Most of the things I’ve seen about the rich paying “their fair share” are so heavily loaded with harsh language against the rich, like the irrational racial prejudices of the past, that it can only be that we’ve decided to stigmatize their wealth the way we used to stigmatize skin color: so we can assuage our consciences about this virtual slavery.

Just yesterday alone, I read a few columns and political cartoons about the budget that were all soaked in tones of violent anger towards the rich. This isn’t about helping the poor, it’s about hating the rich.

Remember those Washington Mutual ads a few years ago which mockingly showed a couple of dozen older white men in suits acting spoiled, superior, and out of touch? Imagine an ad campaign that made fun of a negative stereotype about anybody other than rich white men. Outrageous.

Almost every time someone writes about raising taxes so that the rich will pay “their fair share” and the poor will be taken care of, any number of reasonable questions arise: What right do we really have to seize anyone else’s property, even for something that might be good? Who are we to determine what’s fair? How do we know that our definition of “fair” isn’t itself unfair? If it’s possible to take too much, how do we know we aren’t doing it? Have we considered the long term consequences of such a cavalier policy of convenient looting?

Isn’t making the rich pay a disproportionate share of their wealth to support the whims of the majority, while openly scorning them as awful people, tantamount to endorsing slavery?

By singling out the relatively small portion of the population that has earned a million dollars or more, and treating them by a harsher standard than is expected for the rest of us, aren’t people indulging in the same kind of narrow-minded double standards that they decry when the targets are racial or sexual minorities? Why is it OK to exploit anybody?

Aren’t the rich a minority, too? Why don’t they deserve the same protection and dignity as everyone else? Why are insults and stereotypes accepted when they’re directed at this group?

This is class warfare, entirely propagated by the middle and lower classes for fashion’s sake, and I worry that it will someday turn dangerous.

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15 comments on ““Their Fair Share”

  1. I would take this as parody coming from just about anybody else; coming from you, I’m believe you’re sincere. Knowing that, I want to comment on only two points:

    Who are we to determine what’s fair?

    You don’t identify the “we” here, but I’m guessing you mean either the body politic as a whole, or the middle/lower classes/those who you see clamoring for a greater share of the wealth of the wealthy. My response is, if not us, then who? Should the wealthy alone determine what is fair to pay? If so, why? I don’t have the sole option of determining what is fair for me in any matter that involves the functioning of the state; why would it be fair for any other single class or special interest or any other subdivision of the whole to determine what is fair for itself without input from the rest of the body politic?

    But mostly what I wanted to say about this line is that it is disorienting to hear from a conservative. “Who are we to determine what’s fair?” is usually a question that comes from the liberal-est of the liberal. Who are we to interfere with another culture and tell them they can’t slaughter their neighbors/remain in Stone Age ignorance/enslave their women? Who are we to export our religion or our political system or our science to another culture? Usually it’s the handwringing liberals who worry that they are overstepping ethical bounds, and the conservatives who have the self assurance to believe that their way of life, their decisions, are worth offering or even imposing. To read this question coming from you is more than a little bizarre.

    The second point I wanted to comment on is Isn’t making the rich pay … tantamount to endorsing slavery?

    If all the evils of slavery are distilled, I think the essence is that slavery is the complete loss of power to exercise one’s will in day-to-day affairs, not only to decide how to employ one’s time, but also to decide where to live, how to live, whom to marry, what to believe, what to say, how to dress, how to comport oneself. A slave is powerless. A wealthy person, even one taxed to whatever point you think is unfair or disproportionate, does not begin to approach the loss of power that equals slavery. A wealthy person who pays a hundred times as many dollars as I pay is still likely to have access to a hundred times as many dollars as I do to use as he sees fit. And he’s entitled to those dollars — hurrah for him, no envy from me. But admit that he exercises vastly more power than I do — he isn’t a slave, even if I’ve taken from him far more in taxes than you think is fair. He can still make all the personal choices that I can make, and a great many choices that I cannot make because he has the resources to exercise those choices and I don’t. (That’s fair, I’m not complaining.)

    By suggesting that an overtaxed wealthy man’s situation is in any way akin to slavery, you trivialize what slavery really is. I don’t suppose you really mean to do that because you’re such a reasonable and compassionate man in so many ways, but that’s the effect of this bit of your argument.

    I agree with some of what you say; I don’t want to argue anything else that I disagree with. Just those two points.

  2. I am right there with Ardis.

    I actually am seeing the strategy of removing regulations that protect Unions (I know that UAW probably went too far); ditto those that protect the consumers or the environment; releasing big corporations of any accountability (see Wall Street’s sale of sliced and packaged junk mortgages–Michael Milken went to jail, but who is being held responsible for the latest?).

    Add to that tax cuts for the richest percentile of earners. If your net income is in the millions, and you get a tax cut that gives you a few hundred k per year (more than most families live on!), where is that money going to go? Your stocks and bonds. If you, however, don’t get that tax break, are you going to stop working, because “it’s not worth it”? I wager that you aren’t.

    At the same time I know people working 13-hour night shifts (standing, cooking food all night) for $30. You can’t live on that, and you hardly have time or energy to take the other 13-hour job to get another 30 bucks. Is a speculator or a CEO really worth that much more to the company?

    At the heart of our problems today are two things: The exaggerated will to consume, and the theory that the most important job of a corporation is to produce added value to the stockholders. HELLO? What about the people, who make the stuff that’s being sold, and who buy it? Aren’t they a part of the equation.

    Remember the lesson from Henry Ford: People can’t buy the stuff you make it if they don’t have money for it. And a sign of a humane society is a livable minimum hourly wage.

    Myself, I’m on retirement, and am not going to profit from either strategy really.

  3. I have to agree with Stone. To require my labor by threat is tyrany. My labor these days is represented by money. The government takes my money by force and gives it to others. I have been extremely poor and have seen many people who lazily sit back and collect the money (labor) of others that the government has confiscated from those who work.

    Ardir seems to think that just because the state does not take all of a person’s money, it is not tyrany. Yes, even the rich can still make personal choices. And soon they will make the choice that many in solialist and communist countries make, don’t work so hard.

    Ardis plays the race card deftly by saying that Mr. Stone trivializes slavery. Ardis you fail to see that slavery has many forms and shades of grey and thereby trivialize the slavery that we are in now. Our legistlators have sold our children and grandchildren into slavery to pay for our national debt. That is wrong. It is time to stop the tyranical redistribution of wealth, from one person to another and from one generation to another. Via la Revolution!!!

  4. Forcing anyone innocent to do anything they wouldn’t do of their own free will and choice is evil. Using the power of the state to enact anything is endorsing violence.

  5. I have an article you should read entitled 9 Things the Rich Don’t Want You to Know About Taxes. You are right about one thing, there is a class war going on, and it has been in progress for the last 30+ years – and the rich are winning.

    There really is no comparison to slavery here. No one hates the rich because of some characteristic they are unable to change. Those of us who really understand what’s going on in the country and who really care about our fellow citizens simply want the wealthy to pay their fair share. Read the article and maybe you’ll get the point.

  6. The best use of humor is to put down the strong and uplift the weak. Sometimes it conveys messages that can’t be conveyed as effectively by other means; in this case, that the powerful people who control everyone else’s lives are so out of touch with ours.

    I’m aware that this all seems abstract to you, but try actually being poor and not having some of the advantages that you obviously have. Try also realizing that net worth is not any indicator of personal virtue, and that in most cases it is because of unearned advantages, many of which are paid for out of taxes. To withhold needed services from others because you’ve already “got yours” is un-Christlike and disingenious.

  7. I applaud Parshall’s response.

    One must remember that “choice” is not the only standard by which to measure public or individual policy. “Accountability” for those choices must also be a standard that is met. Those who have the most power and receive the most benefit from the system (in which they also have the greater control in creating and manipulating) also have the greater responsibility within that system. To shirk that responsibility because they may not have complete control over what society determines to be their responsibility is to set aside their accountability to the system they profit from. They should not be asked to pay more simply because they earn more (which is the major failing of liberal arguments in this issue). They should be asked to carry more of the tax burden because they receive more benefit and have more power within our current system. With great power comes great responsibility.

    While I understand your dismay at the very negative, even hateful, portrayals of the wealthy in some public media, be careful to not assign them “victim” status. There can certainly be a greater understanding between all stakeholders in the taxing and distribution debate. All of us would be better served by withholding judgment on others, whether they be rich, poor, or somewhere in between. I imagine that middle class teachers and other public servants were hurt by the recent rash of public scorn that was heaped on them due to budget debates, as are the poor who apply for welfare support everytime someone labels them a freeloader, stupid, or lazy, simply because of the financial situation they are currently in.

    However, our “right” to determine these issues is established by our Constitution and we do in fact have a responsibility to carry out the law as it stands or change it as needed.

  8. “Race card,” Kramer? There’s not a word, not a hint of race until you bring it up. What Huston wrote and what I wrote is definitional, just as valid when speaking of, say, the Romans enslaving the Gauls, or the Saxons enslaving the Celts, or the Babylonians enslaving the Jews, as it is in anything akin to modern or recent race-based slavery. Methinks you’re the one who wants to play the victim by playing the race card.

  9. On the issue of force:

    If I desire a product or service from a vendor, and that vendor has set a price to it, is the vendor forcing me by requiring that I pay that price, or is it simply the price of doing business?

    Apply this to government services. If I desire a product, or service, or benefit from the government (which includes all Americans since we provide the tax base) then it is not force to require that I pay a reasonable price for it.

    All of us, including the wealthiest in America, have made demands of our government to provide products, services, and benefits. Payment for those benefits should be paid in accordance to the percentage of benefit received from each income group or class. By far, the wealthiest receive the most benefit from our government – therefore, it is the moral and just thing to require that they take accountability for payment of those benefits without crying foul over it.

    This also does not exclude every citizen’s civic responsibility to engage in the public process, thereby ensuring that our taxing and spending reflect sound fiscal and social policy.

    @Kramer: If you had no voice in the political process than your accusations of threat would have more validity. As it is, you do have a vote and a voice, and you have a Constitution that upholds your rights. Taxation and redistribution is constitutionally sound. The details of it surely need debated on a regular basis but to accuse the government of force is to deny the very sound principles of government that this country was based on.

  10. Thank you for all the enthusiastic comments, everybody! I love a good discussion.

    Little has been said here, though, about my main point–that the middle- and lower-class majority in our society is publicly indulging in a very hostile attitude towards the upper class. Whatever the merits or faults of the rich as a group, shouldn’t this be condemned?

    “Slavery” needn’t always be considered as America’s 17th-19th century chattel slavery. What else do you call it when one group feels legally entitled to seize and dispose of the goods or labor of another group, however they see fit, apparetly without limit, without their consent?

    Some of you are mentioning ideas like caring for the poor, and having reposnsibilities as citizens, and that’s all fine and good, but are you suggesting that we can and should legislate that? We should use the force of law to make people live up to our vision of charity? How is that fair, or democractic? Doesn’t that vindicate my thoughts above about a majority exploiting a minority? Such impulses are what I’ve termed elsewhere on this blog as “liberal theocratic fascism.” Yes, the rich should be generous and charitable (and, indeed, are to a greater extent than we tend to give them credit for), but should law enforcement be involved in making them be that way?

    Saying that the wealthy need to be taxed more because the have more power and privileges, and have benefited the most, conjures the illusion that society has a finite supply of wealth that is unfairly distributed, irrespective of talent, effort, achievement, and, yes, fate. It’s an enervating and infantilizing argument, and the basis of class warfare theory at least since Marx.

    I’m not sure what part of the Constitution supports wealth redistribution as a legislative goal. Certainly nothing in the original text. As Madison pointed out in Federalist #10 and #54, respectively:

    “Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government [pure democracy], have erroneously supposed, that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions…”

    “Government is instituted no less for protection of the property, than of the persons of individuals.”

    Even the 16th amendment, establishing the federal income tax, that foundation of government redistribution schemes, is less than a hundred years old, and has more to do with financing government expenses than social justice, as it wasn’t used for that purpose for more than two more decades.

    Saying that people should contribute taxes based on their access to services still doesn’t establish how that ratio should be calculated (and it certainly hasn’t been yet), much less that we have a right to do so at the caprices of the majority, and impose it by fiat. A case could well be made that the lower classes have far more government benefits and services, anyway.

    I understand that those who disagree with me are advocating for those they see as needy. That’s noble. I’ll end on that note.

  11. While your ideology (or theology if you prefer) has a certain appeal, it simply doesn’t work in the real world. The capitalist system, even when under some nominal controls as in the US, will always over time move the bulk of wealth and property to the top. We have the greatest concentration of wealth at the top of any OECD country and when it comes to the ability to change one’s economic situation – that is to realize the American Dream of moving up a notch or two – the US ranks at the bottom. That’s what has happened in the real world. You can view those facts as enervating and infantilizing and Marxist, but they are facts nonetheless.

    We managed capitalism quite well in the years following World War II when our factories were humming and their unionized workers were bringing home enough wages to afford the new suburban middle class lifestyle. American businesses were the envy of the world and so was the American lifestyle. Throughout that period, we had high income taxes ( top marginal rate of around 90%), tough regulation of business including anti-trust regulation, and strong labor unions. We had Republican Presidents enacting new and tough environmental regulations, and proposing government-sponsored health insurance, and the Congress was full of well-respected statesmen on both sides of the aisle who put the country first. Why was this so bad? Why after 30 years of “conservative” economic policies are things so much worse?

    We don’t live in a fantasy world where the free-will donations of generous people can meet all our society’s needs. We don’t live in a fantasy world where economic activity just naturally helps everyone have a better life. We don’t live in a fantasy frontier society where we can all be rugged individualists pursuing our self-interest with no taxes and expect to get ahead.

    We live in a country where large corporations and banks run the economy for their benefit and run our political system as well. They write our legislation and hand it to “our” representatives along with fat checks for their “campaign” expenses and their army of lobbyists make sure their investment in “our” representative pays off. We have an economy that is dominated by the Finance/Insurance/Real Estate sector that caused the current recession with fraudulent investment scams. We have 1 in 5 Americans unemployed and we are losing good-paying jobs every day and replacing them with low-wage service jobs. It’s time to get your head out of the libertarian theory books and look at the world as it is.

  12. Not to speak for everyone, but I think little was said about the hostility because we all agree with you that it is unacceptable. Preaching to the choir there. Hostile attitudes towards others should always be condemned – civil discourse should always be the standard. Lack of civil discourse in a universal problem, however, not just targeted at the very rich, so we have to be careful to weed it out wherever we find it.

    One point that I think you largely ignore in your argument concerning whether it is right to legislate the collection and dispersement of income is the fact that not a single one of us creates wealth independent of the labor and sacrifice of others, not to mention the benefits provided by the system we live in. There is a misconception that wealth is the sole product of one person’s efforts and hard work. This is a false assumption.

    One question I do have for you – are you simply saying that you don’t believe tax dollars should be used for any welfare programs, or do you think that any taxation beyond the basic running of government should not be legislated? And what constitutes welfare? Does public education fall into that or not? I think that is crucial to outline, because people have very different opinions about the details of the taxation issue. For myself, I would argue that most of our tax dollars go to what I would define as non-charitable programs, therefore most of our taxes are not forced charity.

    When discussing the “finite” supply of wealth, one must take into consideration that yes, indeed, there is a finite supply within companies and nations. For example, if a business of 100 employees makes $20 million a year and the top 5 employees take half of that for income and bonuses, well, there isn’t much left to divide among the other 95 employees. It is a finite resource – no matter how hard a person within that company works, depending on their training and education, they will only get paid what the head honchos don’t want to take for themselves. Budgets are simply a reality. As for wealth within a nation, since going off the gold standard we now create wealth on paper with nothing to actually back it (besides government debt). I am not convinced that nations can continue to “create” wealth in this fashion without taking some responsibility for the inequity that system creates.

    Social justice was largely not an issue for governments until the industrial age. I think it unwise to second guess what any of the founders would have done had they been forced to deal with the outcome of global industrialization.

  13. Charles D, as always, thanks for your thoughtful feedback.
    Why is having more wealth at the top than any other nation a bad thing, much less de facto evidence of some ethical wrong that demands strenuous interventions? The fact that poverty in America is still a higher standard of living than in most any other nation could balance that out. Indeed, last year’s census refuted much of our trendy class warfare talk by showing that minorities now integrate into suburbs in far greater numbers than ever before.

    Your economic picture is based on cherry picked details out of context. The “90% tax rate in the 1950’s” claim that gets trotted out a lot now makes it look like a millionaire would pay $900,000 in taxes! That’s a little inaccurate, and the success of the 1950’s was based on several other things, not the marginal tax rate. How are the financial policies of the last 30 years a monolithic bastion of conservatism, anyway?

    I don’t like it when people simply say that the “Wall Street fat cats” caused this recession. That’s the kind of simplistic, almost stereotypical thinking I decry here. There’s plenty of blame to go around. We’re not all helpless victims, and a lot of the responsibility for things needs to fall squarely on ourselves.

    Also, yes, the kind of corporate corruption you mention exists, but it is a bipartisan thing. In the world of big, professional politics, no group’s hands are clean. The current administration is as guilty as any.

    But, finally, as you describe the real world versus theory, I’d remind you that the ideas I defend aren’t based on the kinds of convenient means of sweeping current problems under the rug that liberals often favor, but on the timeless principles that have always made this country so great. Our society used to be called “the American experiment”—you bet we’re an ongoing laboratory for what the Founders termed “republican virtue.”

    Janille, thanks for commenting.

    I don’t think that all wealth comes from individuals working alone, but I also don’t think that all work—and therefore all pay—is equal. Your scenario for a company’s finite resources at the end is flawed for the reason that most leftist models of economics are flawed—it doesn’t account for innovation, nor for unequal contributions to the success of the industry.

    You suggest that, “if a business of 100 employees makes $20 million a year and the top 5 employees take half of that for income and bonuses, well, there isn’t much left to divide among the other 95 employees,” but that might be the kind of talk I’m worried about here—you paint leaders as parasites, and employees as victims. That’s class warfare.

    Local municipalities are free to tax and engineer as they please, in line with their own laws, but the federal government is bound by the Constitution, and as such, should not be involved in any dole. Let’s see how the different political philosophies affect the destinies of the areas where they prevail. Anybody want to move to Detroit? They’ve had exclusively Democratic mayors since 1962, and they seem to be doing just great! (/sarcasm)

    Yes, public education is a welfare program; we just don’t think of it that way because it is so widespread and its use it virtually mandated—I’d love to see more options open up, and the popularity of homeschooling makes me happy. Ideally, it would be a last resort safety net only for those with no other option, like any welfare. I say this as a longtime public school teacher.

    Incidentally, social justice concerns and their related programs are definitely an issue the ancients recognized (it’s even covered in the Torah), and not something exclusive to the industrial age.

    I might recommend to all readers this great new video, a rap about two of our world’s great economic thinkers explaining their contrasting views:

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