The Real Issue in Cutting Taxes

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In the wake of the passage of Proposition 13 in California, the rhetoric about taxation has understandably been on the increase. Hardly a day passes without the media in the Golden State referring to the real or imagined consequences of its passage. Nationwide, the press has been covering the "aftershocks of the California people-quake," to use one reporter's phrase. Politicians and bureaucrats, after the fact, are generally eager to have themselves counted as properly concerned with what the voters want. Then there are the intellectuals.

Now the intellectuals are not in the habit of paying heed to taxpayers—especially when these taxpayers make it their business to pull much of the rug from under the intellectuals. And you can believe that the intellectuals are sensing the oncoming pain. After all, they draw large benefits from government spending. Various educational organizations, think tanks, and other grant recipients are certainly aware that what they are doing might not be regarded as essential government services.

But this is only part of the explanation for why the intellectuals are almost uniformly opposed to the temper expressed by the referendum in California. More important than their vested interest is their firm conviction that when taxpayers seek to retain some of what the government would like to steal from them, the motivation must be crass materialism.

The editors of The New Republic, for example, called the Prop. 13 attitude "Me First" and promptly condemned it through and through. How dare anyone think of himself or herself first? How dare one be so concerned with one's own well-being, one's own projects, one's own success in life?

That famous novelist and would-be economist John Kenneth Galbraith followed suit in an address to a convention of public employees. He too accused California's citizens of crass materialism, of lacking in compassion, of wishing the worst on the poor, the black, the crippled, and everyone else it is laudable to mention when one does not like others having even a modicum of their own way. The same theme was echoed by Vernon Jordan, of the National Urban League, and other black leaders—as well as the venerable George McGovern—all of whom deemed Prop. 13 racist.

And those who have advocated Prop. 13—what answers do they offer to this line of attack? None. Essentially, they have focused on government waste, on how much government could save—and still do those important things like making everyone safe from living in this universe or supplying everyone with the illusion that full employment (with a fine, satisfying job), world peace, the flourishing of the arts and sciences, 20 years of good education, etc., can be guaranteed by the various levels of government.

Waste, however, is categorically not the essential issue in tax limitation and tax elimination. The issue is precisely whether government should appropriate people's income and property for purposes of furthering other people's projects.

Measures to make government more efficient do have a valid place in the public policymaking. Government should not be immune from the requirements of efficiency, frugality, and other virtues. On the other hand, once government is given numerous tasks, isn't it crass and petty to worry about waste? What of the waste at Ford Motor Company—or REASON magazine or the local drug store? Such waste is part of doing business, even if the nonprofit character of government makes it possible for it to waste far more than a profit maker could tolerate.

Waste is not the essence of our current troubles. Those troubles have to do with government's stepping in where it should never dare to enter—in the private and social affairs of human beings everywhere.

But in a climate where the morality of self-sacrifice reigns, where Galbraith and The New Republic can lash out at people's self-interested conduct without any serious challenge, tax limitation is not sufficient for achieving essential progress in the direction of the free and decent society. Such progress cannot be made without confronting the underlying notion that you and I and every one of us exist to be slaves to the well-being, health, safe living, and full satisfaction of others.

It is, first of all, wrong to forcibly impose on people the practice of charity, even if charity were one of the prime virtues everyone should cultivate. Second, charity is not the prime human virtue—it's not even high on the list. There is everything honorable in pursuing goals suited to oneself, goals that will enhance one's own life and the lives of those one has come to love, cherish, respect, or otherwise value.

Until this idea is made clearer and clearer, until it is made as prominent as its diametrically opposite idea that everyone's business is to live for everyone else—until then, there will be very little change despite all the tax-limitation measures, restraints on spending, etc., etc., that people have cooked up in an effort to live something of a pleasant and prosperous life without challenging the view that it is wrong even to think of doing so.

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