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Jewish World Review March 2, 2001 / 7 Adar, 5761

Tony Snow

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In a tizzy -- PRESIDENT BUSH has sent Democrats into a tizzy with his tax plan -- not only because he proposes to shave our tax burdens by a tiny 1.2 percent over the next decade, but also because he has raised the question of what kind of tax system we ought to have.

These days, politicians of all stripes pay homage to the ideal of progressive taxation -- that tax rates should rise as income increases. President Bush indirectly invokes the principle each time he says he wants to take millions of people off the tax rolls, and Democrats are leaning hard on the idea of progressivity. They are making class warfare the central focus of their crusade against the Bush plan.

Like many theorists before them, Democrats justify their demand for unequal tax burdens on the basis of "fairness." They say it's unfair that the rich have more and that simple justice demands that plutocrats share some of their money with the less fortunate.

This seemingly simple assertion sets loose an avalanche of unwanted consequences.

First, it invokes a peculiar, cramped version of "fairness." Class warriors act as if only differences in income have moral and legal significance. They don't describe as "unfair" the fact that some people are born with more intelligence than others -- or better looks, better voices, greater height, superior athletic talent, more mellifluous voices, greater personal decency, or any of the innumerable traits that distinguish us from one another, and in some cases ensure that some will lead happier and fuller lives than others around them.

Second, in taking from the rich and giving to the poor they presume to know the proper way to spread the wealth. They do so without detailed knowledge of any individual's actual worth; without consideration of our virtues or faults; without information about how hard we work, and so on. They don't care what we do or what kind of people we are. Only the 1040 form matters. Yet, since none of us likes to part with earnings won by our own hard work, we look for ways to shelter our income. Meanwhile, people with connections agitate for changes in the revenue code, so they can keep more of their money.

Dems: Have any ideas?
Such changes inevitably set off a chain reaction. The larger government becomes, the more convoluted the tax code gets and the more likely it is that people with political connections will win concessions denied to others.

Therefore, in an odd and roundabout way, the crusade for "fairness" produces a Byzantine tax system that is not only unfair, but incomprehensible.

There are other complications. Graduated taxation lays siege to our long-held belief in equal pay for equal work. Set aside the difficulties in defining the fundamental terms "equal," "pay" and "work." The tax code makes it possible for two people, working side by side at the same job, performing at the same level of competence and enjoying identical levels of seniority to make different sums after taxes. One may have more children than the other, or a larger home mortgage, or greater deductible medical expenses -- and so on.

Furthermore, progressive taxation undermines the notion of shared citizenship. We have reached the point at which nearly half of the public pays no net federal income tax and the other half shoulders the entire load. The federal law thus treats economic success the same way it treats embezzlement or murder -- as a forbidden activity to be punished with increasingly harsh sanctions. The political result is that people who don't pay taxes are encouraged to view wealthier citizens as criminals who have a moral duty to hand over their money.

Our entire train wreck of a tax system owes its worst features (its unforeseeable and arbitrary loopholes; its Byzantine complexity; its perverse aversion to hard work and achievement) to the unreflective clamoring for a brand of "fairness" -- that is grotesquely unfair. This is the same "fairness" Democrats have used as the centerpiece of their anti-Bush campaign.

When Steve Forbes proposed a flat tax in 1996, he was written off as an out-to-lunch tycoon. But it turns out he was onto something very important. If George Bush really wants to change the tone in Washington, he might want to think about stealing Forbes' flat-tax idea -- and propose replacing a tax code aimed at inciting class warfare with a flatter tax aimed at celebrating jobs well done.

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© 2001, Creators Syndicate