The Corner

Fairness

Arthur Brooks in today’s Journal:

Simple facts about our tax system do not support the contention that it is “unfair” in favor of the rich. According to the most recent IRS data, the top 5% of earners bring in 37% of the income but pay 60% of the federal individual income taxes. The bottom half of earners bring home 12% of the income but pay 3% of the taxes. Today, according to the Tax Foundation, 60% of Americans consume more in government services than they pay in taxes.

In sum: A large majority disagrees with the current administration’s redistributionist philosophy; believes the rich already face a tax rate that is too high; and disapproves of the fact that more and more Americans pay nothing in federal income taxes. So why do arguments like the president’s persist?

The answer is that nobody wants to sound anti-poor, so we too easily concede the notion of fairness to those who define it as redistribution and criticize redistribution only because it leads to economic inefficiency.

This is an error. There is nothing inherently fair about equalizing incomes. If the government penalizes you for working harder than somebody else, that is unfair. If you save your money but retire with the same pension as a free-spending neighbor, that is also unfair.

Real fairness, as most of us see it, does not mean bringing the top down. Yes, free markets tend to produce unequal incomes. We should not be ashamed of that. On the contrary, our system is the envy of the world and should be a source of pride. Generation after generation, it has rewarded hard work and good values, education and street smarts. It has offered the world’s most disadvantaged not government redistribution but a chance to earn their success.

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