Years ago, Senator Moynihan said something that made an impression on me: Tax policy is social policy. So true. I wish it weren’t so. I wish we could divorce tax policy from social policy.
Jimmy Carter said our tax code was “a disgrace to the human race.” I agree, in no small part for this reason: It pits Americans against one another.
It pits homeowners against renters. Married people against unmarried people. Married people with children against married people without children. Married people with children going to college against married people with children who aren’t going to college.
It’s not just that the government has its thumb on the scale. It’s that it’s jumping up and down on the scale with its whole large body. We conservatives are often complaining about “social engineering.” A lot of us are willing to be engineers, when it comes to tax policy.
I have a dream, sort of (not to belittle the great dream of civil rights for all Americans): a flat tax with no exemptions — for home, children, charity, what have you. You’re taxed at some reasonable, and reasonably modest, percentage. And what you do with the rest is your own business.
Of course, the demagogues would clobber such a policy. “Whaddaya got against children? What’s your problem with charity? You don’t think people should own a home?”
I can hear them. I heard some of them when George W. Bush dared to reform Social Security. The Left went ape; the Right was largely silent. I believe that Bush was ahead of his time and will be thanked — or at least acknowledged — by history.
Maybe a flat tax would be unworkable. Maybe it would be impossible, given the nature of our politics. (I mean, a flat tax unmolested and un-nibbled to death by exemptions.) But I would love to see it tested. And maybe, with the right kind of leadership — bold, patient, informed, and persuasive — it could be.