By Gary Galles*
As happens every time any sort of tax change that can be demonized as “tax cuts for the rich” is proposed, the Trump administration’s framework for tax reform has been met with “tax me more” virtue signaling. The latest installment I have seen was “I’m a billionaire. Tax me more,” in the October 6 Los Angeles Times. There billionaire Tom Steyer wrote, “As a billionaire, I would profit substantially from the tax cuts proposed…But I am strongly opposed to even one more penny in cuts for rich people and corporations,” because it would “defund the critical public programs on which American families depend.”
Unfortunately, such a signal of virtue is actually a signal of vice. Higher income earners already pay a vastly disproportionate share of the taxes used to fund government programs. Since those far higher taxes aren’t paying for greater benefits, Steyer’s position is essentially once of coerced charity–higher income people should be forced to pay more so that the government can give more to others, who didn’t earn it—and if other rich people don’t volunteer for higher taxes like I do, it is only because they are selfish (though one wonders why those who want something for nothing aren’t considered more selfish).
Because individual rich tax volunteers would pay only a small fraction of the actual cost of the programs they favor, forcing others to pick up almost all the tab, they provide just one more example of how the immense payoffs to taking others’ property through government lead people to torture logic to justify why others deserve your money more than you do, with government merely the necessary mechanism to achieve the required charity.
However, the coercive charity logic is faulty. Few have made that clearer than F.A. Harper. In Liberty: A Path to Its Recovery, over a half-century ago, he decimated the “charity” excuse for violating liberty.
The right to the product of one’s own labor…is not in conflict with compassion and charity. Leaving these matters to voluntary action, rather than to apply compulsion, is in harmony rather than in conflict with Christian ethics… assistance given voluntarily…is truly charity; that taken from another by force…is not charity at all, in spite of its use for avowed “charitable purposes.” The virtue of compassion and charity cannot be sired by the vice of thievery.
“Political charity” violates the essentials of charity…taken by force from the pockets of others…All told, the process of “political charity” is about as complete a violation of the requisites of charity as can be conceived.
Those who contend that the rights of liberty are in conflict with charity falsely assume that persons generally have a total disregard for the welfare of others… The right to have income and private property means the right to control its disposition and use; it does not mean that the person must consume it all himself.
Nor is compassion so cheap a virtue as to be practiced by the mere distributing of grants of aid taken from the pockets of others…buying groceries and things for certain persons by using other people’s money.
When a taxpayer is forced to contribute to “charity” in spite of his judgment of need, he will increasingly shun the sense of responsibility which is requisite to a spirit of compassion…as he more and more accepts the viewpoint: “That is the government’s business!”
Advocacy of these rights of liberty is sometimes called “selfishness.” “Self,” if used in this sense, means…anything which this person considers worthy of help from his income or savings.
If “selfishness” is to be charged against the one who demands the right to that which he has produced, selfishness of a far less virtuous order should also be charged against any non-producer who takes the income and wealth from another against his will.
If control of the disposition and use of income and wealth is to be called “selfishness,” then it is unavoidable that someone act selfishly…The question then becomes: Who should have the right to be selfish, the one who produced it or some other person? Is it selfishness to control the disposition of that which you have produced, but unselfish to control the disposition of that which you have taken?
Review carefully [the] starting assumption that justice and charity and selflessness can best be attained through giving legal or moral sanction to the taking by one person of the product of another’s labor by force.
Liberty is not in conflict with charity. More accurately, charity is possible and can reach large proportions only under liberty; and under liberty, the “need” for it would probably be greatly reduced.
Tom Steyer and other “rich tax volunteers” are no doubt well-intended. However, the virtue they thereby put on public display decoys attention from the necessary vice of violating others’ liberty it involves. While few today recognize it, F.A. Harper saw that gaping hole in arguments for why charity justifies government coercion of others. He demonstrated that government coercion both undermines charity and creates more “need.” Further, involuntary “generosity” threatens liberty:
Liberty…demands acceptance of separate domains within which a person is allowed to make his mistakes, if he does so with what is his…it becomes a prime moral right of a person “to do what I will with mine own” instead of to do what I will with your own.
About the author:
*Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. He is the author of The Apostle of Peace: The Radical Mind of Leonard Read.
This article was published by the MISES Institute