Sunday, March 11, 2012

Morals, Taxes, and the Welfare State

There are two primary types of arguments offered to support the Right-Wing agenda of deregulation, cuts to social welfare programs, and tax cuts for the wealthy. The first type of argument is consequentialist. Advocates of this approach claim that cutting taxes on the wealthy, deregulating markets, and slashing social welfare programs are better for everyone. These moves will, they argue, make us all wealthier.

This is line of argument is absolutely false. The empirical data is unequivocal: the Right-Wing economic agenda benefits the very wealthy only. Wealth never trickles down, deregulation never helps main street, cuts to social welfare programs never help the unemployed and working poor. These policies have been implemented since the late 1970s, and all that has happened is that poverty has increased, middle class and working people have seen no rise in income, but have lost their pensions, their health insurance, and become buried in debt. Fewer and fewer people can own a home, send their kids to college, or pay their medical bills.

The consequentialist arguments are demonstrably, empirically, and indubitably wrong.

The second kind of argument is a moral one. The following video clip of Fox News' Stuart Varney provides a good example:

According to Varney and those who think like him, it is immoral to take more from the rich. They are entitled to what they have earned, and they are better off than the rest of us because they "worked harder" and "made themselves."

There are several problems with this type of argument:

1) The wealthy have not, as a class, worked harder than anyone else. That's just plain false. Working class people often work themselves to exhaustion and even death, and wealthy people sometimes can go years without breaking a sweat. No economic class, as a group, is divided from others on the basis of how hard they have worked.

2) There are no self-made individuals. In point of fact, there is a great deal of empirical evidence that persuasively demonstrates that, in nearly every case, the very wealthy have become so with the help of (a) being born and raised with wealth and privilege and (b) the assistance of government services and subsidies - usually more so than the rest of us. Or, as Elizabeth Warren nicely sums up in the following video:

Finally, 3), as John Rawls persuasively argues, to claim that one morally deserves X one must demonstrate that one has earned X chiefly through one's own moral or individual efforts. But this is simply not possible in the case of wealth. How much personal wealth one accrues depends on a number of arbitrary factors. First, and most importantly, wealth is often a mere accident of birth, some of us are born more or less fortunate than others. Second, often our income level is determined by our natural talents. But, although we can develop these, we cannot create them. If I do not have a talent that can earn me a great deal of money, then I will not earn a great deal of money. Third, which talents pay best is based on the arbitrary preferences of society. In our society talk show hosts and professional athletes make millions, whereas school teachers make, on average, 43,000 a year. Does a talk show host, say Oprah Winfrey, deserve to be extremely wealthy in some moral sense that a teacher does not? Hardly. The difference between her wealth and theirs depends on the arbitrary whim of society. It is, therefore, not reasonable to claim that the wealthy are morally wronged if they are taxed at higher rates than those who earn less.

The moral arguments for the Right-Wing agenda fail, just as the consequentialist arguments did.

Now turning from the Right-Wing agenda to the Progressive one, can a good case be made for the Progressive agenda of high taxes on the wealthy, strong social safety nets, and powerful government spending on the public good? Yes they can.

On consequentialist grounds the Progressive agenda is clearly a good idea. Imagine the reduction in crime if far fewer Americans lived in poverty, were well-educated, had good jobs, nice retirement plans, and access to affordable quality health care! Imagine how much better the United States would compete in the world if our schools were properly funded - not to mention the moral satisfaction in being sure that our society provides for those who are suffering, who are down and out.

Furthermore, the most prosperous time in our nation's history was the period after WWII into the mid to late 70s. During that time our income inequality was at it's lowest, unions were at their strongest, regulations at their most intense, and taxes on the wealthiest 1% of income earners was never below 70%. Coincidence? If so, then explain the fact that this boom did not exist before these policies, and failed to exist afterward. Explain the occurrence of the same trends in Europe.

More importantly, however, is the moral case for a strong welfare state. As a society we need food stamps and unemployment insurance for those who are poor, health care for all, good public schools, good public roads, parks, libraries, and community centers. We need all of these because our society is a healthier, happier, safer, and much better place when we have them in all their strength. Even those who are wealthy enough to get by with their private schools, gated communities, and personal Islands, are safer and more secure in a society where those around them benefit from good social services and programs.

Consider an analogy: Vaccines prevent deadly diseases. Not everyone, however, can be vaccinated for every disease. The elderly, the very young, some people with chronic illness or disabilities, cannot take certain vaccines. In a population where the vast majority of people are vaccinated, this is not a problem. Those who cannot be vaccinated are protected by what is known as herd immunity. Because so many people are vaccinated, the feared disease cannot enter the population and the unvaccinated persons are safe. Having myself or my child vaccinated, in other words, is not merely of benefit to me and my child, but is a public good, from which we all benefit. A community without measles or polio is much better off than a community with these dangers.

Unfortunately an increasing number of parents refuse to vaccinate their children. These parents fear that vaccines are dangerous and may even cause autism. Science has conclusively refuted these fears. Many parents, however, refuse to believe the scientific community and don't vaccinate any way. The result is that diseases like whooping cough and measles have returned. The unvaccinated have suffered because of this, often even dying as a result.

The Right-Wing agenda for economics is as irrational and as dangerous as parents who won't vaccinate their children. Because an increasing number of Americans have come to believe over the last 35 years or so - in spite of the empirical facts! - that the wealthy both morally deserve all their wealth and will benefit the rest of us by keeping it (and getting more), we have seen our social welfare programs slashed, our public services eviscerated, our social contract torn to shreds.

The result is a less educated, less secure, less healthy, more impoverished, and increasingly divided society. This is a recipe for total disaster that can, in the end, finish only with widespread rebellion, despair, and disaster.

We must now either wake up to the failure of the Right-Wing economic agenda, or watch things get much worse.

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