Here’s an article on the history of taxes in America. Summary: early on there were few, and the federal taxes that were levied were temporary and used to raise money to fight wars. But since the beginning of the twentieth century the tax burden has had a generally upward trend, especially for the top-earning half of the populace.
If you add up state, local, and federal taxes, most Americans pay “between 20 percent and 45 percent of their income—not including taxes on capital gains, interest and other incidentals.” And yet:
According to [a Gallup poll released yesterday], 48 percent of Americans said their tax rates were “about right,” 46 percent said they were “too high,” and 3 percent said they were “too low.” On the income tax alone, 61 percent called the amount they had to pay this year “fair.”
As one might expect, these responses differ by income, with people in lower brackets being more satisfied with their taxes than people in higher ones. And Republicans are more unhappy than Democrats. No surprises there.
But the differences between groups were not as great as I would have imagined. Take a look:
So, what does it all mean? Is it that people actually think they’re getting a lot for their money? Or do they believe “well, it could be worse; look at Europe?” Have they just gotten so used to the state of things, like the frogs in the pot that slowly comes to a boil, that they’ve lost perspective? And what does the word “fair” mean to most of the respondents—“fair” as compared to other Americans, “fair” in the abstract sense, or “fair” in the sense of the income redistribution that Obama plans to make more of a feature of our tax structure?
Taxes are not a unitary matter. People’s opinions of them depend at least in part on where they perceive the money to be going, and how it will be administered. If people believe they are getting something valuable for their hard-earned bucks, that helps. There’s a general agreement that some sort of taxes are needed for the basics: infrastructure repair, armies, police, firefighters, and primary and secondary education and state colleges. There is disagreement about what may constitute other “basics,” but what most raises the ire of many Americans who are dissatisfied with their taxes is the sense that there is a great deal of graft and corruption in government, and/or that the fruit of their labor is going to support many people who voluntarily choose laziness, or in some cases are not even citizens at all. And it is especially galling when the dole is seen as permanent rather than a temporary bootstrap operation for a significant proportion of those who receive it.
Now, with the huge bailouts and the gargantuan Obama budget proposals, the role of government is poised to rise dramatically, and the “fairness” goal of taxes in the sense of income redistribution is very likely to rise as well. Thus, the stage has been set for today’s tea parties.
Marc Cooper, writing in the LA Times, doesn’t get why the tea party folks are so upset; they must be loony. After all, who could be offended when only the very richest are seeing their taxes go up, and then only by 3%? He calls the protesters “silly” (and that’s when he’s being nice—he also calls them “insane”); after all, every reasonable person knows the bailouts are for our own good, and that the money will be used to save our jobs and our homes, and who cares about the filthy rich anyway?
On reading Cooper’s article, the first thing that struck me was his condescending tone of ridicule towards anyone who might disagree with him on the issue: his need to downplay the populism of the tea party sentiments and to recast participants as the lunatic fringe of a party that has lost its way rather than representing a popular groundswell of protest. My guess is that he is ignoring both the grassroots nature of the tea parties and their appeal to non-fringe elements (and as well as to some Democrats) because it is almost literally incomprehensible to him that there could be a populist movement that aligns more with traditional Republican sentiments than Democrat ones and that could have a grievance that is valid even though it happens to be something with which he disagrees.
Cooper and those who agree with him are also failing to understand where this outrage is coming from (they also tend to cite the excesses of the Bush budgets, saying “he did it, too,” and ignoring the scale difference between Bush and Obama as well as the fact that a great number of Republicans disliked Bush for that very reason). My sense is that what’s behind Cooper’s disdain, and that of many others who don’t understand the tea party protests, is a major disagreement on the role of government in our lives, and on government’s ability to demonstrate wisdom and efficiency when performing a task such as bank bailouts and increasing regulation of the economy. He doesn’t seem to understand that some people, even if they are not rich, believe (as Joe the Plumber did) that someday they may get there, and that the rich are neither demons nor ever-flowing ATM machines for the country, but serve to drive its economy when they keep cash in the private sector and create businesses and jobs.
In short, most of those participating in tea parties define “fairness” quite differently. This philosophical divide is the source of much of the dissatisfaction demonstrated in the protests, and whether Cooper agrees with them or not, they do have a valid argument with a long and illustrious history.
Let’s hear, for example, from Thomas Jefferson, in his First Inaugural Address:
[W]ith all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow-citizens—a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.
Although most people think it was Jefferson who said “the government is best that governs least,” and although he may indeed have agreed with the sentiment, it was actually John O’Sullivan, founder of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, who in 1837 wrote the sentence in that journal. It was followed by:
No human depositories can with safety, be trusted with the power of legislation upon the general interests of society so as to operate directly or indirectly on the industry and property of the community. Such power must be perpetually liable to the most pernicious abuse, from the natural imperfection, both in wisdom of judgment and purity of purpose, in all human legislation, exposed constantly to the pressure of partial interests; interests which, at the same time they are essentially selfish and tyrannical, are ever vigilant, persevering, and subtle in all the arts of deception and corruption. In fact, the whole history of human society and government may be safely appealed to, in evidence that the abuse of such power a thousand fold more than overbalances its beneficial use.
I’m not as down on government as O’Sullivan was; I think there’s much less than a “thousand fold” difference. But his generally cautionary message continues to ring true today; history has certainly offered a lot more evidence to bolster his argument in the years that have passed since he wrote those words.
And now, I’m outta here—to mail in my taxes, fair or unfair. And then to go toss some tea with a few like-minded individuals.