Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Andrew Sullivan, Conservative?

Over on his blog, "conservative" Andrew Sullivan writes a brief pragmatic defense of putative taxation. In response to a reader who remarks that "progressive taxation is required to maintain the political viability of the free market," Sullivan responds,

This is also how a pragmatic conservative can still live with an Obama presidency.

We have seen a massive shift in income inequality in the last couple of decades. Over time, that inequality can destabilize a democracy. It removes many from income tax altogether, it concentrates wealth in too few hands who can use it to corrupt the political system, and it leads to an oligarchy susceptible to populist onslaught (hello, Mr Dobbs). Aristotle's advice that polities should be concerned about the strength of the middle class, and that no democracy can long endure without one, is well worth absorbing.

Conservatism is not an ideology. It's a disposition. And sometimes it takes what Oakeshott called "trimming" to keep the ship afloat. Moderation matters. In some ways, I see Obama as a return to moderation in American politics. And it's conservatives who have become ideologues who cannot accept it.


I'd like to think that one could justify progressive (or punitive if you prefer) taxation without having to resort to defending naked income redistribution. To take the pragmatic view, most of what the government spends money on is supposedly for the benefit of us all- it's a very small percentage of government spending that goes to means-tested welfare programs. And if the government "needs" X amount of tax revenue every year in order to continue spending money for the benefit of us all, than it should do so in a way that 1- results in as many people as possible actually paying taxes and 2- actually provides that "needed" revenue. (We're being pragmatic here.)

You can't tax the poor because they have nothing to pay and you can't overtax the middle class because that would literally make them poor. So you tax at different rates. My own pragmatic solution would be a two-tired flat tax with rates of 25% and 10%, but that's a story for another time. Andrew Sullivan is dead wrong that inequality removes individuals from the tax rolls. Poverty excuses folks from paying taxes and the wealth of others has nothing to do with it. The pragmatic view should be about efficiency within the current system- Justifying the progressive income tax as necessary to combat the political and social evils of excessive wealth isn't pragmatic, it's just plain old liberalism.

As an added note, Sullivan's comments about conservatives are a bit perplexing, even coming from someone who's tried to make the conservative case for Obama. If Sullivan is convinced Obama is a "return to moderation" than so be it, but I'm just not sure what he's seen to convince him of this. And I can't for the life of me understand the "ideologue" comment. I'd say the problem with the Republican party is a lack of ideologues, particularly when it comes to limited government. It's not ideology that's driving opposition to Obama and support for McCain, but partisanship.

3 Comments:

Anonymous rose said...

Have their been economies that observed massive growth and prosperity that didn't see increases in income inequality? And at the same time, does inequality matter as long as the standard of living is increasing for all?

Reagan cut social programs and cut taxes on the rich. Certainly an anti-populist approach that contributed to increases in income inequality, but how were this nations poor doing in 1988 compared to 1980??? A helluva lot better.

And even defenders of an increasingly progressive, borderline welfare tax system that obama proposes need to realize that this is a bad time to take more capital out of the hands of the businesses and employers of the US. Maybe in 2005 or 1995 you could've gotten away w/ it and accomplished your goals w/ out damaging growth too badly. Not the case in 2008.

11:59 AM  
Blogger lonely libertarian said...

Exactly. To put it simply, as I always like to do, what's better- Having the rich make 10 and the poor make 5, or having the poor make 10 and the rich make 100?

If Obama does win this election it will be because he was oh-so-skillful at playing the class-warfare card and turning the language of Republicans against them. The truth is, Obama really is offering tax cuts for 90% or whatever of Americans and even though he's planning to raise taxes on the rich, he's still been able to use that language of tax cuts. And truthfully, it's hard to blame people for voting in their own interest. (Yeah, higher taxes on the rich may be against everyone's interest, but that's a much more esoteric point when compared to the money you're going to get back in your pocket.)

But in a way, it's sort of scary and it illustrates the problem with a progressive tax in the first place (along with the problems of individuals) who pay no taxes. If you can literally get people to vote with their pocketbook, what's to stop the political process from becoming all about higher and higher taxes for the rich, and lower and lower taxes for the middle class, to the point where the middle class don't pay any taxes at all.

If Obama's logic is pay for a middle class tax cut with higher taxes on the rich, just imagine that logic extended further and further down the slippery slope. (And obviously, this is completely ignoring the issue of the effect of high taxes on the economy and in turn on future tax revenues.)

12:43 PM  
Anonymous rose said...

"If you can literally get people to vote with their pocketbook, what's to stop the political process from becoming all about higher and higher taxes for the rich, and lower and lower taxes for the middle class, to the point where the middle class don't pay any taxes at all."

Teach less poetry in our school system and replace it with a course on American Capitalism and economics. Not focused on theory and models, but rather history. You're not gonna teach people supply side economics, but you can give them a basic understanding of what has and hasn't worked historically.

Or we can keep teaching poetry and feelings instead.

2:22 PM  

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