Politics & Policy

Taxation and Representation

Tom Perkins has a point.

Tom Perkins is not exactly a sympathetic figure, but the man has a point.

Perkins, a gazillionaire venture capitalist and cofounder of Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, took a well-deserved drubbing for his comparison of anti-“1 percent” invective in the United States with the political conditions leading up to Kristallnacht in Germany. His offense there was both against good taste and substance. He has something useful and true to say about the anti-democratic, illiberal, and periodically violent mood of Western anti-capitalism and the American partisans of class warfare, but none of that is very much like Nazism. Not very many things are very much like Nazism.

#ad#Today, he is once again being locked in the stocks of public opinion for suggesting, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that people who pay an enormously disproportionate share of the taxes should have a disproportionate say in public policy. “The Tom Perkins system is: You don’t get to vote unless you pay a dollar of taxes,” he said. “But what I really think is, it should be like a corporation. You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes. How’s that?”

Cue outrage, etc.

But Mr. Perkins here has only taken a step that progressives took a few generations ago, when they embraced escalating rates of taxation as a foundation for economic justice, and applied it to a different problem. If our political liabilities — taxes — should be as a matter of justice proportional to our income, then why shouldn’t our political input be likewise proportionate? Why should proportionality be the rule in one context and not the other? The leap from “No taxation without representation” to “proportional taxation with proportional representation” is not a very dramatic one. But Mr. Perkins has been received as though he were the offspring of Marie Antoinette and an unreconstructed Ebenezer Scrooge.

Indeed, even proportional taxation was not, and is not, enough for our progressives. A flat tax on income would be perfectly proportional: A man earning $100,000 a year would pay ten times as much as a many earning $10,000 a year. Most conservatives would be perfectly happy with that arrangement. Progressives demand more. Not only must high-income people pay taxes that are proportional to their incomes, they must pay taxes that are disproportionately high as a share of their incomes: 10 percent of one dollar earned, 15 percent of the next.

The case for an income tax that is proportional is far from obvious, and the case for one that is progressive even less so. The principle of equality under the law suggests, to my mind at least, that every man’s standing in relation to the state should be the same as every other man’s, regardless of his wealth or income. So why should somebody pay 20 times or 50 times or 10,000 times the taxes that another man pays? It is sensible and just to charge people fees for the use of specific services, which is why I favor, e.g., toll roads over highways that are supported through broad taxation. But some general taxation is necessary for public goods, and if we are all to be equal before the law, why — as a matter of principle — should a wealthy man pay more for the use of the courts or for the protection of the police than one who earns less money? The usual answer given to that question is “the rich can afford to pay more.” That is true, but it is not a principled reason. A rich man could afford to pay more for a Big Mac or a Honda Civic, too, but we do not expect him to do so. Another popular explanation is: Paying the same rate as everybody else would be too hard on the poor man. True, but that is an argument for lower taxes, not for progressive taxation.

“Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society,” Oliver Wendell Holmes is purported to have said, and the phrase appears above the entryway to the IRS building in Washington (where they know precious little about how to comport themselves as civilized human beings). Joe Biden says paying taxes is a “patriotic” duty. Robert Reich calls taxes “the price of citizenship.” Even if we take all of these distinguished gentlemen at their word, is not the man of modest means equally a member of civilized society? Is he less a patriot? Is he not an equal citizen? Isn’t the wealthy man, too? Again, what principled reason for the difference in the obligation?

Progressives complain that the top 10 percent of American earners take home 45 percent of the total amount of income earned in the United States. This is true — but they also pay 70 percent of the federal income taxes. Even if we accept proportional taxation, high-income Americans pay a share of taxes that is far disproportionate to their share of income. As a matter of pure politics, a small class of people that is expected to shoulder a tax burden in the ratio of 7:1 relative to their numbers is bound at some point to object. The Left defends this arrangement on the grounds that the high-income have “benefited more,” but there is some serious question-begging in that proposition: People who can afford good schools benefit rather less from our government-school system than do those who can’t afford alternatives. People who finance their own retirements in many cases benefit less from Social Security and Medicare, our largest domestic expenditures, than people who do not. The very wealthy almost by definition benefit less from our vast and progressive array of federal taxes and entitlements.

If we are to be truly equal in our relations to the state, then we should pay taxes that are not only equal in proportion but absolutely equal: Unfortunately, to fund current federal spending, that implies an annual tax of about $31,000 per household. The fact that most U.S. households pay nowhere near that much in federal taxes is made possible by the fact that people like Mr. Perkins do.

Tom Perkins may be a bit cranky, and he may be too loose with Nazi analogies. But he has a point.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.

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