Last week Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said that the "most fortunate Americans" should pay more in taxes for the "privilege of being an American." One can debate different ways of balancing the budget. But Mr. Geithner's argument highlights an unfortunate and very destructive instinct that seems to permeate the Obama administration about the respective roles of citizens and their government. His position has three problems: one philosophical, one empirical, and one logical.
Philosophically, the concept that being an American is a "privilege" upends the whole basis on which America was founded. Privileges are things granted to one individual by another, higher-ranking, individual. For example, in my house my children's use of the family car is a privilege. One presumes Mr. Geithner believes that the "privilege" of being an American is granted by the presumably higher-ranking, governing powers that be.
This is an age-old view that our Founding Fathers rejected. First, they argued that the basic rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (i.e., economic liberty) were natural rights, endowed by our Creator, not by government. Second, the governing powers do not out-rank the citizens. Rather it is the citizens who grant government officials their "just powers." As Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, governments are instituted among men based on their consent in order to secure the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The notion that a governing authority grants privileges to those it governs directly contradicts Jefferson's declaration.
This philosophical point is fundamental. But even if you accept Mr. Geithner's case that the well-to-do must pay more for their presumed "privilege" of being governed, his story ignores the empirical fact that they already do pay a record share of income taxes, even relative to their share of income. According to the Census Bureau, the share of income received by the top 5% of American households is now 21.5%, up from 21.4% in the 1990s. Their share of income taxes has risen to 59% under President Obama from 52% under President Clinton. This despite the fact that the top tax rate was five points higher in the Clinton years.
If you go further back to the pre-Reagan days, when the top tax rate was 70%, the story becomes even more dramatic. Under the four presidents of that era, the income share of the top 5% was 16.8% and their share of the income tax was 36%. In other words, the share of income received by the top 5% has risen 28% and their share of income taxes has risen 64%.
Stated differently, based on the data provided by the Census Bureau and the Internal Revenue Service, the relative tax burden of the top 5% of American earners compared with the remaining 95% has grown from roughly three-to-one prior to 1980 to almost six-to-one today.
One can always argue that this ratio should be 10-to-1, that the "privilege" of being governed is worth 10 times as much per dollar of income to someone who is rich than to someone who is middle-class. Once we give up our moral compass of government deriving its powers from the people. we must also give up any empirical compass of how much we must surrender to government. When you begin the argument that being a citizen is a "privilege" for which one should pay ever more, you very quickly find yourself on Friedrich Hayek's "Road to Serfdom."
This brings us to the third problem with Mr. Geithner's argument, a fundamental logical inconsistency. If being governed, or over-governed, is a privilege for America's citizens, shouldn't everyone pay for the privilege? Why are more than half of all American workers paying nothing at all in income taxes? And if the issue is the need to "pay more" for our privilege, why should only those making over $250,000 be the ones who pay more? If being an American really is a privilege, then certainly all who are thus privileged should pay something.
Still, the real problem with this whole privilege argument goes back to what the Founding Fathers were thinking. Being an American is a right, not a privilege. The privilege belongs to those who are temporarily allowed to serve this great nation in a decision-making capacity. When they turn this privilege into a right to distribute government largess in ever larger quantities—and in ways, to use Jefferson's phrase, a "wise and frugal government" would not—it is those in government, and not the governed, who bear the responsibility for our budgetary problems.
Wednesday, February 29, 2012
The Privilege of Being American
In today's Wall Street Journal, Lawrence Lindsey, a former Federal Reserve governor and adviser to George W. Bush, wrote an interesting op-ed, refuting Secretary of Treasury Timothy Geithner's argument that it is a privilege to be an American and thus, by extension, the richest should pay more taxes. Lindsey's argument is worthy of reprinting in-part.