By Brian Russell, Ph.D.
Growing up in the Midwest, one occasionally hears stories about the notorious 19th-century outlaw Jesse James. My favorite such tale is about James' reply when he was asked why he robbed banks. He replied – allegedly, amorally and unashamedly – "Because that's where the money is." True, then as now, banks had money, but would any reader have accepted that as justification for James to have gone there and taken the money by force? Hopefully not, but essentially that same rationale is being used in this 2012 campaign season to justify "progressive" income taxation, i.e. raising Americans' income-tax rates as their incomes increase, without ever articulating exactly why higher-earning Americans supposedly owe the government a higher percentage of their higher earnings.
True, high-earning Americans have money, but how does that justify the government taking a larger percentage of it from them than it takes from lower-earning Americans? The typical high-earning American receives no more from the government than the typical lower-earning American receives (in fact, the typical high-earning American receives less). Higher-earning Americans do not get exclusive lanes on our highways or faster postal service, better police and fire protection, more homeland security, etc., than other Americans get. Taxation, the sole purpose of which is to fund the government, therefore, ought not to be "progressive," i.e. the rate of taxation on a high-earning American's last $50,000 of income should be no different than the rate of taxation on a lower-earning American's first $50,000 of income. As the benefits of American citizenship are flat (if not skewed in favor of lower-earning Americans), the taxation of American citizens ought to be flat.
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Now, what about the president's assertion that high-earning Americans all took advantage of public infrastructure (e.g. "roads and bridges") to get to and from college courses, to transport goods and services to and from customers, etc.? Well, that justification fails, too, because every American has had access to that same infrastructure, so it is obviously not the source of differences in Americans' incomes (occupational choice, hard work, and ingenuity are, not to mention the fact that our American "social contract" has never been to build public infrastructure and then to claim a public stake in whatever wealth individuals build – yes, individuals "build that" – within it; that would be socialist; ours has always been a capitalist "contract," whereby one generation builds public infrastructure, and each successive generation maintains, expands and passes it on to future generations, all of whose individual members are encouraged to build, accumulate and voluntarily share, as much as they can within it).
So, those 2012 voters who might have been inclined to support Jesse James for president, i.e. those inclined to support "progressive" taxation, ought first to be able to articulate a moral justification for it that is both 1) logically sound – not just a reiteration of James' "because that's where the money is" rationale, and 2) secular – not rooted in religious beliefs about "social justice" that ought not to be imposed on fellow citizens who may believe differently (and if one remains inclined to base public-policy positions on religion in spite of our Constitution, even Jesus Christ, history's ultimate proponent of charity, as far as I know, advocated purely voluntary wealth-sharing, never forced wealth-sharing).
And for their parts, those 2012 voters who would not have supported Jesse James for president ought to be vocalizing their arguments as unashamedly as James vocalized his. Nothing would slow, if not reverse, the growth of our government faster than getting every voter's "skin" proportionally equally "in the game." Without "progressive" taxation, it would be impossible to fund government programs by raising taxes only on levels of income that those programs' beneficiaries do not earn. Many Americans could and would find ways to do without all kinds of government programs if raising taxes on higher-earning Americans required raising taxes simultaneously and proportionally on themselves, and the resulting psychological/behavioral shift in favor of self-reliance would redound to the benefit of those individuals, their children and the nation.
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Brian Russell, Ph.D., J.D., M.B.A., is a licensed psychologist, attorney, lecturer, and television personality. His website is www.drbrianrussell.com.