Tax Equality

Today in a statement New York Governor Andrew Cuomo offered a new income tax plan that included “multiple brackets and rates increasing on a graduated basis throughout and indexed to inflation.”

“Simply put,” he said, “to me ‘fairness’ dictates that the more you make, the more you pay and the higher your income, the higher your rate.”

I will lay aside qualms about this apparent flip-flop from his 2010 campaign rhetoric, the New York Post is doing a nice job excoriating the Governor, and I too will not comment on the economic harm increased taxes may cause, the folks at the Empire Center do a fine job of that.

Instead let us turn to the issue of fairness.

To almost all persons of the left, and even many on the right, the Cuomo definition of “fairness” is apt: if you earn more you pay more.   I find this not merely irritating, but believe it to be political bullying.

Do not misunderstand.   I love fairness and would like to see it applied, but I support fairness under the law.  Clearly, fairness means that each and every man is to be treated identically by the law.  I believe in the “all men” of the Declaration of Independence and the full impact of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Fourteenth is one of the big three anti-slavery amendments adopted during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War.  It states that “no State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Due process and equal protection.  Not a new concept, even in 1868 when the Fourteenth was ratified, but avowed like never before.  Importantly note the punctuation separating the due process clause from the equal protection clause.  This means that each stands alone so that one can not be used to impinge the other.

Now I clearly understand that the “horse is out of the barn” on this argument – to put it mildly.  However I object to any law that treats one man different from another.  Based on my belief in Lockean natural rights as accepted by the Framers of the Constitution, I find differential application of the law, and differentiated laws not merely distasteful, but wholly immoral.   They are unfair.

Popular political thinking says that the rich should pay more in taxes.   In fact they do.  With a flat tax they pay more.   A tax percentage applied to one million dollars will reap more money than that same percentage applied to one hundred thousand dollars which in turn reaps more than that percentage applied to ten thousand dollars in income.  Through a flat tax the more successful pay more than the struggling.  Yet all men are treated equally by the law.

Conversely, it is inherently unfair that a man earning ten thousand pays nothing, while a man earning one hundred thousand pays five percent and the man earning one million dollars pays ten percent.  I think you can make an argument for a progressive system of tax brackets.  You may call unequal tax brackets justifiable or appropriate, but not fair.

Those favoring progressive brackets do claim, and the courts have upheld, the view that the law does apply equally to all, for the poor man would progress through the brackets if he became wealthy.   At the same time the wealthy man pays the rates of the more modestly salaried men on the income earned up to those levels, with only the additional income subject to the higher rates.

The inherent unfairness of “unfair” taxation levels becomes clearer when taken to the limits we are now experiencing.  At present, 43 percent of Americans pay no federal income taxes.  Not a cent.   That would work to about 138,000,000 Americans who pay nothing towards our common defense, so spare me the talk of a social contract.   Alternately, 1 percent of Americans (roughly 3 million people) pick up about 37 percent of the federal tab.  The top 10 percent of American earners provide more than 70 percent of all federal revenue.

These percentages have changed over time.   In the past two decades, the percentage and number of citizens paying income taxes has shrunk.  The percentage of revenue provided by the top 1 and top 5 percents has actually remained about the same.  The middle is making up the difference.

I do not believe that a republic is well served, and that representative government can be maintained, when so few hold the responsibility for so many.  The great progressive icon, the New Dealing Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself said, “taxes, after all, are dues that we pay for the privileges of membership in an organized society.”

What happens when some folks no longer pay dues?  What happens when those that no longer pay dues have the same individual strength of voting, and an excessive aggregate voting strength, than those who pay the bills?

Thomas Paine, an earlier icon of the left, gave the answer, “what was at first plunder assumes the softer name of revenue.”

Equality under the law is fairness.  We should not tolerate the law favoring someone or punishing someone because of their faith, ethnicity, geography, or anything else.  So should we not favor or punish someone because of their income


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