Every now and then you read something that provides a valuable insight into an entire ideological persuasion. That’s what former Bush flack Ari Fleischer served up today on the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed pages.
Ari wanders all over tax policy in this piece, eventually presenting his own “plan” that would abolish payroll and (naturally) estate taxes; make income tax liability universal; and somehow ban any future tax changes that aren’t levied across all income categories. But the guts of his argument is the increasingly familiar conservative claim that po’ folks are deliberately looting rich folks by voting for “income redistribution” (i.e., for Democrats) while escaping the burden of paying for the goodies via income taxes.
If this theory were true, you’d figure that the bulk of federal spending would be composed of “redistribution” programs. But according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, as of last year “safety net” programs (other than in health care) targeting federal dollars to low-to-moderate income people amounted to about 11% of the budget. Add in another 7% for Medicaid and SCHIP, and that’s 18%, leaving 82% of the budget going for defense, Social Security and Medicare, and all the discretionary programs that aren’t aimed in any way at “income redistribution.”
So the “looters” are being pretty generous with wealthier Americans, particularly since the working poor pay payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare that represent a significantly larger percentage of their own incomes than those up high on the economic ladder. But I dunno: maybe Ari thinks people without income tax liability disproportionately benefit from the armed forces, the criminal justice system, highways or pollution control.
In any event, the argument that a progressive tax system leads to “redistribution” is based on the premise that voting behavior is largely motivated by a personal cost-benefit analysis of what each citizen gets back from government for his or her “investment” of tax dollars. Carried to its logical end, this point of view would make an effective democracy contingent on flat taxes–not just flat tax rates, but flat tax assessments, and the elimination of any means-tested programs whatsoever.
Tim Fernholz of TAPPED speculates that Ari and like-minded conservatives are developing a new doctrine of higher taxes to restrain federal spending:
It’s sort of a demand-side “starve the beast” strategy. Conservatives have already proven that you can’t cut spending by cutting taxes, because people like the government. Now they’d like to cut spending by raising taxes, thinking if they can use the government to tax people on the poverty line, they’ll presumably have a broader, more angry constituency for their tea parties. But of course that would require having GOP politicians campaign and vote for tax increases on working-class people, so good luck with that.
I personally think all the caterwauling about upper-income tax burdens is a little more subtle in its motivations: it’s an all-purpose excuse for the perpetual pursuit of lower taxes on the wealthy, and for overt GOP appeals to taxpayer selfishness generally. By projecting class-warfare motives onto the poor, conservatives are rationalizing class-warfare politics for those at the other end of the income spectrum. Add in some incendiary rhetoric about poor folks being “losers” who are parasites on the productive Atlases of the world, and Ari’s antiseptic exercise in tax policy numbers crunching turns very quickly into the demagoguery of Rick Santelli and Joe the Plumber.