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Democracy – Taxed by a Feeling

In a recent gallup poll, 61% of respondents indicated that their income tax share was “fair.”  Further, 46% thought their tax level was about right, while only 3% thought it was too high.  The other 47% thought their taxes were too high.  I’m led to wonder how one’s share can be “too high” or “too low” and yet fair, but I’ll lay that aside for a moment.

Now my purpose here isn’t to argue about which of these groups is right or wrong.  Doubtless these numbers will be cited by various commentators in favor of some combination of their view of voters and taxes.  Some are citing these numbers against the tea parties for today, because the positive feeling, at 46% is better than average, and the 61% “fair” result is positively rosy.  Others will believe this shows the stupidity of the voters, who fail to realize how they are being abused.  Yet others may realize that some of those who think their taxes are fair actually paid no federal taxes at all.

As is usual with numbers such as these, they can be spun in many ways, yet the proper question is what, precisely, they actually mean.  For example, what is “fair” taxation?  How do I determine whether certain taxes are fair or not?  I must obviously have some definition or I can’t really tell.  Without a definition of “fair,” the statement that 61% believe their taxes are fair describes only a generally positive feeling.

Consider your friends, family, neighbors, co-workers–anyone with whom you may have had a conversation about taxes and whether those taxes are “fair.”  Can you write a precise definition of what is a fair tax?

If you actually tried to write such a definition, what would it be like?  Would an equal percentage of income be fair?  Would an equal amount of tax, such as a head-tax, be fair?  Should your percentage grow as your income does?  How should the basic amount of money the government requires be determined?

I’m guessing most readers don’t actually have answers for those questions, and further, I’m reasonably certain that a substantial percentage of the 61% who think their taxes are fair, nor even the presumed 39% who think their taxes are unfair (or perhaps admit they don’t know), have no real idea what they’re saying when they use the word “fair.”

Today thousands of people will attend tea parties, protesting taxes.  Thousands of others will laugh about their protest.  Far too many people in both groups will have no better argument than to say that they feel that they are taxed too much, or they feel that they don’t get enough from the government, or they feel that the Democrats are doing better with the economy, or that they feel that the Republicans are more fiscally responsible.

But feelings change pretty regularly–with the weather, with one’s relationship with one’s spouse, with changes in colleagues and coworkers.  As a nation, we can’t just feel our way along.

That is why I am excited to be releasing Preserving Democracy.  Now I normally write something personal about a book, and I’ve even done so once about this one.  I usually talk a bit about agreeing or disagreeing with what I read.  When I edit a book I have an extraordinarily long time to examine the various claims.  I like to emphasize how I’m not here to publish things that I agree with, but rather things that deserve consideration.

But that is not my main consideration here.  I’m not even that concerned about promoting a specific set of ideas.  What really attracts me about this book is simply that its author, Elgin Hushbeck, has considered the ideas he presents, presented the arguments for and against, and argued for his conclusions.

Political books are a dime a dozen–well, they actually cost more like around $30 each, but you get my point.  There are lots of them out there.  As a general rule these books preach ideas to an audience that already agrees, providing slogans along the way to help the already converted express their viewpoint in fewer words.

During the Clinton administration I was annoyed by the way certain people on the right simply jumped on every little thing in order to criticize the president.  Then I was similarly annoyed by certain people on the left during George Bush’s tenure.  Now I’m annoyed again by certain people on the right again.  Is it the criticism that annoys me?  Absolutely not!  In fact, I think our public dialog is often not critical enough, that both the media and opposing politicians often give our leaders a free pass when they should not.

In this atmosphere, Preserving Democracy is a breath of fresh air.  It is vigorously critical, but on policy issues, not on trivia and personalities.  Instead of providing slogans, it challenges the use of slogans in political debate.  My social media coordinator has been having trouble distilling enough short quotes from the book to use on our Twitter account.  Very little that Elgin says can be handled in 140 characters or less, and that’s no accident.  If you want slogans, go somewhere else.  If you want to study the issues, buy Preserving Democracy.

Now don’t think that Elgin goes gently on his opponent.  One endorser used the word “scalpel” and that is a good analogy.  Conservatives and Libertarians will find things here to cheer about.  Liberals will find things to annoy them.  But it’s never name-calling or sloganeering.  The reasoning is there.  You can disagree, but you will need to lay out your facts, challenge the logic–make your case.

Is our tax system fair?  I don’t think so, but to know whether you agree with me or not, you’ll need my definition of fair, and yours.  That’s beyond the scope of this post.  Yet if many more of us don’t both come to an answer on questions such as this one, and do so after a reasoned examination of the evidence, our democracy will surely fail.

Are you ready to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work of Preserving Democracy?

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