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Tax policy: our need for humility

< values are at the core of how we make decisions and navigate our world; they allow us to interpret events at the most fundamental human levels. They are not means to an end; they are ends in themselves.
In politics it is through our values that we understand the initiatives of our chosen politicians. Yes, there are technocratic reasons behind various pieces of a political agenda, but our values are what make them worth fighting for.

Taxes, the way government spends its revenue and redistribution of wealth in general, are among the political issues that arouse people’s values the most. Most commonly, these  ideas are debated through the lens of fairness and equality.

Liberals say a progressive tax code is fair because the rich should pay more of their paycheck to enable programs for upward mobility for the less fortunate. Conservatives say a progressive code is unfair because it punishes those who are successful and work hard and rewards those who do not work or do not have the skills to make more money. There are, I think, legitimate arguments on both sides.

When it comes to equality, the debate revolves around whether we should pursue equality of outcome or equality of opportunity (although I’d argue the only way to reach equality of opportunity is through more equality of outcome).

Each of these arguments, about fairness and equality, are interesting, but  they result in us talking past each other as each side becomes entrenched in their point of view.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with sides becoming entrenched in their points of view; the problem is that the tax debate revolves around the wrong question. This happens, I think, much because we focus on the values of fairness and equality (of which people have differing definitions). There is room, however, to introduce to the conversation the value of humility. Moreover, tax reform is something the nation badly needs. The country can afford entrenched battles over issues that lack short-term urgency, but tax reform is not one of these issues.
What is needed, then, is a reframing of the issue. Regarding the tax debate, Josh Barro, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and a blogger at Public Sector Inc, wrote something interesting the other day:
“People should stop saying they oppose ‘redistribution.’ If you favor levying general taxes to pay for government, you’re for redistribution. You can’t separate programs for general welfare and redistributive programs. The discussion we need to have is about the appropriate level of progressivity in the tax code and spending programs.”

His general point was that it is impossible to match benefits of government programs to the amount one pays in, so arguing about whether or not redistribution is good is a pointless debate. Redistribution and progressivity are inevitable to a certain extent. If we were able to transition the tax debate to a point where this was accepted, a much more thoughtful policy debate could occur, one that involves reasonable consideration of both public needs and private sector growth.

However, this reframing cannot occur when each side continues using the same arguments about fairness and equality.  Centering the issue around the value of humility, especially as a Democrat who favors higher levels of progressivity, might be helpful.

See, one of my biggest problems with the conservative argument against progressive taxation and redistribution is that it can come off as arrogant and entitled. The, “I made this money, I deserve it,” argument is understandable to a point, but its widespread use points to a degree of arrogance and entitlement in this culture that I think stems from certain parts of the American Dream narrative.

One of the strengths of the American Dream narrative, that if you work hard you can be successful, is that it makes anyone feel like they can have a bright future because it is all up to them. For a nation of immigrants, this is prime motivation for setting out to the land of opportunity.

It is very true that the financially successful have worked extremely hard; I come from a high achieving immigrant family and know this is the case. However, becoming successful requires a good amount of luck throughout one’s life, including the luck to be born into a context that gave one many advantages.
Furthermore, what the hard work narrative can do is create a sense of entitlement among those who have “made it.” Generations removed from the original immigration to America are often not as in touch with the feelings of luck, opportunity and humility that those first immigrants felt. Moreover, the opportunity America has been billed as is simply not accurate anymore, for America has some of the lowest upward mobility numbers among all developed nations.

What Democrats could do, then, is reframe the tax issue around humility, around the success that hard work brings, but also around the reality of how fortunate one has to be to achieve success.
Instead of continuing the fairness and equality argument, the debate can be re-understood through the lens of humbleness and giving back.

Of course, people would argue it is not government’s job to tell people how to be, for that would be way too paternalistic. Perhaps there is truth to this, but legislating is nevertheless guided by our norms and values. Realigning the tax debate around the value of humility would change the terms of the argument, while making a statement for one of the values that made this nation of immigrants so strong in the first place. And it would allow us to finally get to the necessary work at hand, that of reforming policy.

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