I was listening to a radio show the other day, addressing the tax platforms for some of the current candidates for the 2016 presidential race, and I had a moment when the story became focused on philosophies of taxation where I just felt like some things became clear for me which before had been just a jumbled mess of disparate ideas. There’s been a great debate in the halls of political philosophy regarding the ideas of two renowned thinkers: John Rawls and Robert Nozick. The core of the disagreement between the two schools of thought is that on the one hand Rawls argued that human equality can only be seen when everyone behaves as though people with the least opportunity and resources are the true baseline for the assessment of justice (the veil of ignorance), while on the other hand Nozick argued that equality and justice are in truth based on individual choice and responsibility with little or no security for people whose choices are severely delimited by circumstances beyond their control.
Today, the prevailing winds seem to be blowing in support of Rawls’ take on things. Social safety nets and mandatory insurance requirements are designed, at least in theory, to force the equalization of opportunity in their spheres. Of course, equalizing opportunity in most cases ends up meaning that lots of people lose resources to programs that often help them less than other options they might have been able to afford without having been forced to pay up.
Don’t get me wrong, the Nozick argument isn’t flawless either. I mean, what’s a real alternative to progressive taxes and social spending programs that doesn’t end up with a very large portion of society effectively disenfranchised by economic destitution? The realities of human psychology are such that even though such a system might remove systemic barriers that might allow people without financial resources to bootstrap themselves into solvency, there is real risk that most would not just out of simple depression.
There’s no way that a truly free market of choice will ever become the American way. And if we do end up with a staunch Rawlsian at the head of our national ship, it’s very likely that in the near future the way people of means account their wealth will be changed. By significantly higher tax rates. And the argument behind this is often a plea to help the helpless. It’s a noble plea. Helping people who need help is a good thing to do. But raising the progressive tax schedule rates doesn’t just carry out the promised “tax the rich to feed the poor,” it also increases the tax burden on the large portion of the population caught in the middle.
Being middle class doesn’t just mean that you take home more pay than you would if you lived below the poverty line. For most it means that your hard work and able problem solving have led you to be able to live a life of dignity. Rather than sacrifice that dignity for the optics of appearing to help the less fortunate, why not mix up the schools of thought a bit and come up with a plan that preserves human dignity across the board and helps alleviate poverty at the same time?
I’m not talking about doing away with taxes. Or raising or lowering them for anyone. This philosophical argument actually has very little to do directly with tax policies. Just know that if things go a certain way with the next election, you could end up paying half or more of your income for tax programs that may not necessarily be the best at carrying out the requirements of their mandate. But just because you don’t want to have that forced upon you doesn’t mean that you think the status quo for social programs are adequate to the task of helping the helpless either.
Don’t expect socialism to win the day, next November. But maybe it’s time to establish a new baseline for yourself regarding the disposition of your own wealth. It is possible to help people without involving the government. And you don’t need to help an entire population to make a real difference. If you have more, financially, than you need or use, then maybe you can afford to see yourself helping others – not through a veil of ignorance, but one of knowledge. If enough people vote with their help, then maybe both the Rawlsians and the Nozickians can have what they want: a wealthier, healthier, and more dignified society.