What is “fair”?
This post is not about “the Buffet rule,” but it is. That is to say, the proposal itself is obviously fairly complex and I think does deserve consideration (but Annenberg has found that this argument is fundamentally flawed in that “— on average — high-income taxpayers pay higher rates than those in the middle, or at the bottom for that matter”). What this post is about is rhetoric and morality.
The Democrats such as Barbara Mikulski argue that this is about paying “your fair share.”
“I support the Buffett Rule because I do believe in fundamental fairness. That if you live in the United States of America, that you benefit from the United States of America, both its national security and its public institutions, that you need to pay your fair share.
“This is what America is all about: fairness and that we’re all in it together.”
I do believe that in America we hold to a fundamental myth about fairness and I think that ought to be our goal. The challenge is in defining what is “fair” and my “share.” There is no doubt that everyone in America (regardless of citizenship or taxation level) benefits from our national security, road systems, and so on. Someone like Warren Buffet is not very likely to be putting much strain on the system nor benefitting from the various government programs. He could take his social security and theoretically could not carry health insurance and simply use the safety nets available to him. If he is like the wealthy people I have known1 when it comes to health care for them and their family, they do not rely upon government programs. The wealthy get the best healthcare they can find. I cannot afford to do that nor can the vast majority of Americans.
Now we can argue whether that ought to be the case on moral grounds, but my point here is that we cannot say that the überwealthy are not paying “their share.” They tend to take far less from the system and yet their 20% is FAR greater than my 30%. Should a person’s “share” be determined by how much they actually use?
In almost all other contexts that is what we would expect. Let’s say that we go out to dinner at the SBL conference. There are 10 of us and everyone keeps their meal to about $25. I, on the other hand, order the prime rib with garlic mashed potatoes and green beans, followed by a Boston cream pie. My portion comes to $56. I argue that we should simply split the total bill 10 ways, after all there were 10 of us. Would you think that was fair? I doubt it. Or, to follow the Mikulski logic, since one of the other 10 people is actually a CEO and makes more than all the other of us at the table, his “fair share” would be to pay for much more than his $25, say $200 of the total bill since, after all, he earns so much more than the rest of us. Is that “fair”? It is certainly not a “share” in the usual sense of the term.
A moral, even biblical, argument
My complaint is with the rhetoric of “fair share.” That isn’t really what Mikulski, Buffett, and Obama are arguing even though that is what they are saying. Yes, Warren’s secretary is paying at a rate of 30% and Mitt is paying only 16%, but his 16% is a LOT more in actual dollars. Of course that 16% or even 30% is likely be far less of an impact on Warren’s secretary than even 15% would be to her. (Although my guess is that Warren Buffett’s They are appealing to our sense of “fairness” but they are really making a moral argument. This is actually a biblical argument.
From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.that says, in effect, to whom much has been given much is expected. — Luke 12:48
The context of that passage is actually quite challenging to those who have been entrusted with “much.” The slave (and in the context the slave is the religious leaders while the master is God) who has been put in charge of the household, i.e., given much responsibility and corresponding benefits such as money and position, is expected to take his position seriously and fulfill his master’s wishes by taking care of the household and treating the other slaves well. If he does not…
45 But if that slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, 46 the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. 47 That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating.
This is the fundamental assumption then, that those who earn more ought to pay more.2 It isn’t really about it being a “fair share” since the wealthy often use a far smaller “share” of the government services than the middle-income or truly impoverished. This is, in fact, a moral position that says “since you have been fortunate enough to earn/receive a LOT of money you ought to help those who have NOT been able to earn/receive a lot of money.” I think that most Americans would agree with this sentiment. The Republican-Democratic divide arises over how that help ought to be implemented: through the government or private charity.
The sticking points are what taxes should support and the implementation of taxation.3 If we really want to try and get at a “fair share” approach then a flat tax seems reasonable. In such proposals everyone should simply pay a set percentage, say oh, let’s pick 9%, of their income. Mitt Romney’s 9% is going to be a LOT more than my 9%. That would then be “fair” since it is proportional to earnings, even if it is still not proportional to usage. Of course for someone earning $20k that 9% would be a BIG hit and so we have a progressive tax structure. Again, it is an attempt to get at a “fair” system.
Of course none of that gets at the moral question. Should Mitt give more since he makes so much more? His church expects a full 10% and the Christian church(es) expects the same of their congregants.
No one said it would be easy, but it politics you can always count on it being made far more complex through the use of rhetoric.
- That is one aspect of being a dean that is so very curious. I know and am in regular contact with a number of people who earn a million dollars or more, often much more, a year. [↩]
- Of course, don’t forget that Annenberg report I linked to earlier. [↩]
- Did you know that Abraham Lincoln was the one who first instituted an income tax? The Supreme Court later ruled it unconstitutional but Congress then enacted the system we now know. Also, Lincoln died on April 15, 1865. April 15 is, of course, Tax Day…. [↩]