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Not Taking Other People’s Money

Isn’t that the morally decent thing to do?

Jul 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 41 • By ARTHUR C. BROOKS
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Now let’s look at the moral argument against raising taxes. Why does the president want to increase America’s tax burden? You may think it’s just a way to increase revenues and reduce the deficit. But even the president knows he can’t solve the fiscal crisis by helping himself to bigger and bigger chunks of the income of America’s most successful people. Even if individuals earning more than $200,000 were taxed at a 100 percent marginal rate—and we confiscated their passports so they could not flee—the take would come to $1.27 trillion, or just 77 percent of this year’s deficit.

For the administration, it’s not about the money—as we have heard again and again, it’s about “fairness.” The president believes that we will be a better nation if we redistribute more money from those who have more to those who have less. How much more do we need to redistribute until our system is fair?

As you ponder this question, remember the facts: The wealthiest 5 percent of Americans already account for 59 percent of federal income taxes. Nearly half of our citizens pay no federal income taxes at all—yet two-thirds of us believe that everybody should at least pay something, even if just to remind ourselves that government isn’t free. The Tax Foundation reports that the percentage of Americans who are net takers from the tax system is nearing 70 percent.

If our system is not yet “fair,” what will make it so? If the top 5 percent paid 75 percent of the total? Or 95 percent? If they could, would it be ideal for the top 1 percent to carry all the rest of us so we could finally have a tax code that is “fair and balanced”?

This is not the America that our Founders believed in—nor a debate they would have conducted. They did not struggle to make America the nation of claimants we are rapidly becoming. They would not have recognized our current leaders’ definition of fairness in terms of forced redistribution. And they would most certainly not have agreed that the answer to rampant government overspending is to tax our citizens more.

To the Founders, fairness was a question of rewarding merit. Thomas Jefferson spoke of the need to guarantee to every citizen “a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.” He even wrote to John Adams about their shared belief in “a natural aristocracy among men.” The basis of this hierarchy was not nobleness of birth but “virtue and talents.” Alexander Hamilton praised a community in which “each individual can find his proper element and call into activity the whole vigour of his nature.” And in the following century, Abraham Lincoln declared, “I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich” but rather a law that will “allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else.” 

Since the time of the Founders, America has not been a magnet for immigrants seeking a system that penalizes success to pay for largesse. Letters from my great-grandparents who came through Ellis Island suggest they were desperate to get to America to earn their success, not to get great government programs like “cash for clunkers.”

In the coming weeks and months, as the debt ceiling debate rages and new budget battles arise, we will hear more and more class-warfare rhetoric about corporate jets, miserly rich people, and the need for higher taxes. Free-enterprise advocates must be ready to make a three-part case. First, it is bad economics to tax our way out of the hole our government has dug for us. Second and more important, it betrays a lack of national moral fiber to say, in effect, “We are too weak to control our spending.” Third and most important of all, it is not “fair” in any traditional American understanding of the word to tax our way out of a spending problem.

Arthur C. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute and author of The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America’s Future.

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