The U.S. Congress has been considering a steep increase in Medicare taxes for higher-income people. A tax that has been flat since its inception in the 1960s is suddenly about to become a graduated tax. If the measure becomes law, the tax for higher-income earners will jump from about $500 annually to more than $2,000.
Lawmakers pushing for the increase have faced no moral opposition. These lawmakers have actually claimed the moral high ground, pressing the tired old claim that individuals with higher incomes can afford the higher tax rates. The opposing principle, that all individuals should be treated equally under the law, has not been brought into the sunlight, not by any Congressman, not by media commentators, and not by the proposed victims–the wealthier taxpayers–who have been virtually silent as their fleecing looms near.
In the absence of principled opposition, the measure will pass. There is no vocal principled opposition to it because no one has challenged the definition of “fairness” implicit in the legislation, namely, that it is fair that people with higher incomes have fewer rights and, therefore, should be compelled to pay more because they have a greater “ability to pay.” The American people do not usually oppose measures they perceive as fair. As a general rule: in an argument or debate, whoever controls the definition of what is moral will win. Unfortunately, the “ability to pay” principle has controlled the debate in the area of tax law.
Most Americans accept the idea that if two men commit the same crime, they should receive the same punishment. Equal treatment under the law for criminal offenses is considered just. If a Congressman were to propose that, for the same offense, Hispanics should be given longer jail terms, or that Catholics should never be subjected to capital punishment, he would be hooted down.
When the subject changes from criminal to tax law, the concept of equal treatment under the law suddenly goes halfway out the window. Halfway, because there would be no support for taxing some groups differentially, e.g., higher rates for certain religious groups, racial groups, or genders. Such unequal treatment is still viewed as wrong. But equal treatment does go out the window when one group is mentioned: the rich.
Why the silent acquiescence to this one exception? Is it because the “ability to pay” proponents have some sparkling new argument that crushes all opposition? Not at all. Their position is based on stale, Marxist class-envy politics. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were so eager to destroy the successful upper and middle-class “bourgeoisie” that they advocated a heavy, graduated income tax in their Communist Manifesto in 1848. The notion that the wealth and income of the rich could be forcibly redistributed in the form of government benefits and handouts to lower-income people appealed to the worst elements then, and that is just as true today. Socialist and populist politicians have all played upon this envy. The more able, enterprising, and successful citizens have been repeatedly set up for tax attacks. Ayn Rand identified the motive of such attacks: hatred of people who possess virtues or talents (including the talent for making money) the envy-ridden regard as desirable but do not themselves possess. Or, in Ayn Rand’s words, “hatred of the good for being the good.”
Over the years, many decent Americans have either forgotten or become careless about consistently applying the principle of equal treatment under all laws, not just criminal laws. More Americans can recite the Marxist line: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” than can remember these words by John Adams, one of our Founding Fathers: “It must be remembered, that the rich are people as well as the poor; that they have rights as well as others; that they have as clear and as sacred a right to their large property as others have to theirs which is smaller; that oppression to them is as possible and as wicked as to others.”
The important question is whether enough Americans have the clear-headed courage to face down the socialists and populists to regain control of the definition of “fairness,” and reinstate its crucial moral principle: equal treatment under every law in America.