The Corner

Flattening Taxpayers, Ctd.

Yesterday, I suggested that conservatives should not favor raising tax rates on poor and middle-income people. Andy McCarthy has taken exception to my comments. At the risk of being flattened myself by the juggernaut that is Andy in a debate, let me try to answer his objections.

First, referring back to the New Jersey gubernatorial primary that occasioned this debate, McCarthy writes that I am “not even accurate in claiming that Christie has noted ‘accurately that [Lonegan’s] tax plan raises taxes on large numbers of non-rich people.’ What establishes that Christie is accurate?” How about the fact that Lonegan doesn’t dispute it?  Lonegan himself concedes that his tax plan raises taxes on 40 percent of people in New Jersey. That’s a large number of people.

Second, McCarthy asks whether my criticism of part of Lonegan’s plan implies an endorsement of progressive taxation. I don’t see why it would. There are many ways of reducing the progressivity of the tax code, and of mitigating its effects, that do not involve raising taxes on people at the lower end of the income scale.

Within this second objection, McCarthy complains–at least I took him to be complaining–that I didn’t mention that Lonegan also says he wants to cut government spending and promote all kinds of other reforms that would offset the costs of higher taxes even for the people who would be paying them. I’m sure Lonegan stands for all kinds of good things. I know it: He gives a solid talk about how misgovernment has weakened his state’s economy over the last few decades. But that doesn’t make this particular part of his plan wise, or worth praising by conservatives.

Third, McCarthy asks, “[D]on’t we as conservatives think everyone should pay his proportionate share of the cost of government?” It seems to me that we can think of the question of what conservatives should stand for on taxes in two ways here: with or without political constraints. If we are being politically realistic, I think we would have to say that that proposing to raise taxes on poor and middle-class people is a really counterproductive strategy. It is more likely to doom the other aspects of Lonegan’s agenda, which McCarthy rightly praises, than it is to take effect. If we are thinking about ideal policy without reference to political practicality, then it seems to me our answer to this question ought to be that the government spends too much money and overtaxes nearly everyone in one way or another.

McCarthy continues with another question: “[S]ince we believe in smaller government, don’t we believe everyone should pay taxes and thus have a stake in what government spends our money on? . . . . Making every citizen pay his proportionate share of government’s cost is the best way to ensure that government doesn’t spend wastefully and, therefore, that it costs us all less.” I see two problems with this line of thinking. The first is that even if tax rates were raised on people in lower income categories, those people would be at least as likely to respond by demanding a restoration of their favorable tax rates as they would be to become hardliners on spending. The second is that proposing higher taxes on poor and middle-income people fails as a strategy for restraining government because it is likely to make politicians who want to restrain government unpopular.

McCarthy concludes, “I think conservatism can win in New Jersey, but it’s a lot less likely if conservatives trash it.” But “conservatism” has not stood for the proposition that the bottom 40 percent of taxpayers ought to pay higher taxes. That’s a recent innovation within conservatism, one not found in the records of Ronald Reagan, Phil Gramm, or Newt Gingrich. And it’s an innovation that I think conservatives have good reasons to reject.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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