Wednesday, September 17, 2003

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Must-read for the day

Jacob Levy's latest TNR Online piece takes a serious look at the "lucky duckies" argument and the liberal snark that's followed. His point:

The Journal has provided an irresistible target: Republicans proposing to raise taxes, not cut them! On poor people! For purposes of naked partisan gain!

As you might expect, most of the commentary surrounding this idea has treated it as uniquely appalling and indefensible. But the truth is that it's a line of argument that is very familiar, especially among communitarian and social democratic elements on the left. True, it's almost always morally dubious. But sometimes it also happens to be unavoidable. (emphasis in original).

What's brilliant about this piece is that Levy points out that the argument that the tax burden should be shared broadly is of a piece with arguments that the left is far more comfortable advancing -- reviving the draft, opposing school vouchers, and keeping Social Security as a universal benefit.

Read the whole thing.

UPDATE: Still interested in the topic? Go read Russell Arben Fox's critique of Levy's hostility to communitarianism as well. And Kevin Drum provides a more specific critique of the tax question.

posted by Dan on 09.17.03 at 12:59 PM


Jacob Levy makes a good point that social democrats and others have always stressed the importance of universalist benefits and programs. However, they have also generally stressed the use of payroll taxes, not income taxes, to finance these programs. Someone who makes $12,000 still pays those taxes, even if he/she may pay not much in income taxes. Thus, lack of loyalty to these programs is not really at stake.
(this applies less to public schools, which are financed through local taxes (federal part of the budget is tiny). By the way, public school systems in "social democratic countries" are much less universalistic than in the U.S.).

ps. As a fellow untenured political scientist I much enjoy your blog.

posted by: Erik on 09.17.03 at 12:59 PM [permalink]

Raising taxes on the poor = broadening the tax burden

Raising taxes on the rich = class warfare


posted by: snore on 09.17.03 at 12:59 PM [permalink]

It really is an excellent piece--and as he said over at Volokh, his most contrarian to date. My only problem with it is philosophical; his use of "exploitation" as a way to communicate the commonality between all these collective enterprises masks the (I think) legitimate communitarian difference between enlisting individuals in a program where both the means and the ends can be expressed in terms of wholes (i.e., national service), and enlisting individuals in schemes which, by their nature, cannot be wholly equalized (i.e., a tax arrangement which addresses inequities in income). More on my blog here:

posted by: Russell Arben Fox on 09.17.03 at 12:59 PM [permalink]

> ... arguments that the left is far more comfortable advancing -- reviving the draft ...

Huh? The left is arguing for reviving the draft?!?

What's the weather like on your planet, Dan?

posted by: uh_clem on 09.17.03 at 12:59 PM [permalink]

Dear Clem,

On what planet do Charles Rangel and Michael Sandel (scroll down) not qualify as part of "the left."?

posted by: Dan on 09.17.03 at 12:59 PM [permalink]

Sadly, Jacob completely missed the point. Aside from the snarkiness that liberals aimed at the Journal's idiotic wording, the substantive criticism was that the poor *already* pay plenty of taxes. They just don't pay a lot of income tax, and this is the only thing that prevents our overall tax system from being completely regressive.

Taken as a whole, our tax system is very nearly flat today, and the poorest quintile pays roughly 17% of its income in state, local, and payroll taxes. Does Jacob, like the Journal, truly think they ought to be paying even more?

posted by: Kevin Drum on 09.17.03 at 12:59 PM [permalink]

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