The title of this post is an analogy that the Wall Street Journal’s Dan Henninger uses to describe the modern Democrat’s vision of the citizen’s proper relationship to the state. And it’s an excellent one to make in his always must-read regular column.
What prompted that turn of phrase by Henninger was the introduction of the House Republican budget this week by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) — the most serious budget by Congress in our lifetimes. It is the only budget I have seen that (at long last) takes seriously the fiscal impossibility of continuing an entitlement culture in America — a fantasy that anyone paying attention could see was unsustainable years ago. Ryan is the first House Budget Committee chairman to finally say the truth. That took real political courage. Good for him, and the nation will be better off for it.
But back to Henninger’s theme. Most Americans don’t think of tax policy as defining the character of what this country is about. It’s natural to think: “It’s too mundane. It’s too ‘green eyeshade.’ It’s too hard to understand. Besides, only people with a lot of money care about tax policy. Me? Just give me enough money to buy something nice with my tax return.”
But that view misses the bigger and vital picture. Federal tax policy defines, in the most basic way, the relationship the ruling class establishes with those they govern. And that dynamic, no matter what tax bracket you’re in, matters. A lot. Does your government have first and ultimate claim on your time and labor? Or does your government acknowledge and respect that your finite time and labor are your own — to put toward the advancement of yourself and your family — and seek to only take from you what is absolutely necessary? In short: Who’s aims are paramount? Yours as a free citizen, or those of the state?
Henninger addresses that by quoting Paul Krugman of the New York Times:
“So taxes are, first and foremost, about paying for what government buys (duh).”
That’s the attitude of a statist — one who believes that the needs of the state trump the needs of the individual. There is to be no discussion about what the government “buys.” We are to just all pay the bill. If there is any fruit of your labor left over, that’s yours to keep — for now. Henninger continues, quoting a more “reasonable” statist:
Larry Summers, when he left the White House, spoke of the impending nightmare of an “inadequately resourced” government. He said, “While recovery is our first priority, it is essential that we establish long-run parity between revenues and expenditures.”
Interesting priorities. Henninger says about Summers’ quote:
This has been the standard model of taxation’s purpose since the king was collecting taxes in Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest.
Indeed. Bringing this eternal issue forward a few centuries, Henninger notes that something as mundanely titled as the “Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981” — negotiated by Ronald Reagan with a different breed of Democratic Party 31 years ago — “overturned the king’s model” of the relationship between the citizen and the state. Reagan’s vision put the balance back where it belonged. Yet ever since, that dynamic has moved closer toward the government (“the king’s model”) — with both Democrats and Republicans in power — and away from the people.
We’re at the point now that the federal government and its aims rule, and the aims of the individual are secondary. As Henninger so eloquently puts it, our current ruling class has a “galley-slave view of taxes, with the citizenry rowing endlessly to the horizon for the government.” That is not what our Founders envisioned for America.
Henninger paraphrases the view of a Paul Ryan ally, House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp’s “tight description of what we should want from our tax system.”
Our taxation system ought to serve an America that must live and survive in the world as it is now, and will be into the distant future. That is a tax system that allows economic growth greater than the below-2.5% of the past three years, the new Obama normal. It is a tax system that maximizes the release of capital into the economy for productive purposes. That tax system will allow users of capital to create jobs for people who don’t want to work for the government. That tax system will let U.S. firms compete in the new world dominated by young, emerging economies. It will be a fair tax system if its claims are not so heavy that it sinks into the corruptions of loopholes, credits and preferences bartered in Washington.
And that, no matter what tax bracket you are in, is why the federal tax code matters — to every American.