Politics & Policy

The Terminology of Taxation

Democrats have a tough time selling “revenue increases” to the public.

Every political movement has its rhetorical strengths and weaknesses. The Right can wax poetic about liberty and freedom, the Left about the nobility of the poor and downtrodden.

Nowhere do these differences come across more starkly than on the subject of taxation.

#ad# (Note: This is not a column about the debt-ceiling negotiations. I would have put this warning up top, but I feared that immediately seeing the phrase “debt-ceiling negotiations” would cause many readers to face-plant into their breakfast tables or computer screens.)

Ask almost any Republican politician, from lobster-roll-eating northeastern “RINOs” (Republicans in name only) to flinty, leather-skinned westerners with calluses on their trigger fingers, to explain why high taxes are bad, and they’ll do a pretty good job of selling it.

Ask almost any Democrat to explain why high taxes are bad, and you will get hit with the velvet fog, minus the velvet. First they’ll explain that while they do favor “increasing revenues,” they don’t favor higher taxes if by “high taxes” you mean taxes that are “too high.” They favor “smart” tax rates that are “targeted” (i.e., “higher”). Then they’ll explain that they don’t want to raise your taxes; they want to raise taxes on your boss, your employer, and the companies that sell you gas, cars, cigarettes, food, clothes, electricity, and various “unnecessary” surgical procedures. They leave out that those taxes get passed on to you.

Then, they’ll rush to safer territory: all of the wonderful things government does. Government, don’t you know, is just the word we use for all the things we do together. So every time you cut a check to the IRS, an angel gets its wings.

Not all of those arguments are necessarily wrong. My point is that there’s no poetry to them. The sizzle doesn’t sell the steak.

Barack Obama has tried to explain that higher taxes are “neighborly.” That “spreading the wealth around” is noble. That taxation is a vital application of the biblical requirement to be our “brother’s keeper” (which the Bible doesn’t actually require).

George Lakoff, a prominent linguistic consultant to Democrats, has tried a different tack. He says that “taxes are what you pay to be an American. . . . Taxes are your dues — you pay your dues to be an American.”

For all the money Lakoff gets for being original, it’s funny how he’s just plagiarizing FDR, who said, “Taxes, after all, are dues that we pay for the privileges of membership in an organized society.”

Some ideas won’t die, however. So there was Faiz Shakir, editor-in-chief of ThinkProgress.org, expanding on this idea on C-SPAN the other day. 

“We should change our conception of what taxes mean,” Shakir sermonized. “Most people who join country clubs, or gyms, or other exclusive entities in America, feel . . . proud to pay that monthly due, because they want to be part of that special privileged community in which they receive wonderful resources and benefits.” Americans “should feel that same kind of awe and respect for paying taxes . . . we shouldn’t have an aversion to paying some amount of taxes.”

Give him points for trying. But let’s take out our red pens.

First, one senses that when Shakir says “some amount” he means “any amount.” As for this idea that people should feel the same “awe and respect for paying taxes” as they do when they belong to a gym, I’ve got to ask: What gym does this guy go to? 

The fundamental problem with marketing taxes as dues or fees is, well, they’re not dues or fees. Dues are voluntary. Fees can be withheld for bad service, and whatever “awe and respect” one feels comes not from paying the fee but from getting good value for it.

Moreover, most “exclusive entities” don’t charge wildly divergent rates to different customers based on their incomes. In fact, vast swaths of Americans don’t pay the “dues” (income taxes) at all. They do pay the “fees” (sales and payroll taxes), but they get back more from government than they pay into it. And don’t get me started on how illegal immigration fits this country-club metaphor.

The “exclusive entity” analogy actually supports not higher and more progressive income taxes, but a flat tax. Everybody pays X percent of their income. Everyone has the same share of skin in the game.

In fairness, Republicans successfully sell their anti-tax message not because they have better orators or buy craftier linguists, but because taxpayers don’t feel they’re getting a lot of value for their dollars, and most suspect they could feel the same “awe and respect” for half the price.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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