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Wilkinson on the Tax Bill

December 20, 2017 in Economics

By David Gordon By: David Gordon

Will Wilkinson, the vice president for policy at the Niskanen Center, does not like the tax bill just passed by Congress. Writing in The New York Times, he finds the legislation “notably generous to corporations, high earners, inheritors of large estates and the owners of private jets.”

Wilkinson has discovered a surprising source for the legislation he dislikes so much. It is none other than the libertarian idea, promoted by Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand, that taxation is theft. Under their theory of “absolute” property rights, taxation was “morally criminalized.” Democratic majorities, in this view, cannot override property rights.

Wilkinson rejects this account. “The idea that there is an inherent tension between democracy and the integrity of property rights is wildly misguided.” Democracy is a means for the poor and middle class to protect themselves from exploitative elites. Democracy is a relatively recent innovation; in pre-democratic states, ruling elites exploited the “lower orders.” Those not in the ruling elite need the redistributive democratic state for protection.

The fault is no doubt mine, but I find Wilkinson’s line of thought difficult to follow. How does the thought that taxation is morally wrong underlie a tax bill? If you reject taxation, would you not oppose taxes rather than enact new taxes? Perhaps what Wilkinson has in mind is this: in present circumstances, Republicans under nefarious libertarian influence could not proceed all the way to abolition of taxation. The best they could manage is not to tax the well-off as much as Wilkinson thinks appropriate.

If this is Wilkinson’s idea, though, the question arises: What is supposed to be the way in which the rich elites are exploiting the poor in the tax bill? One gathers that it is, as already suggested, by not subjecting themselves to as high taxes as Wilkinson wants. In addition, the deficit that will result from the bill may lead to cuts in redistributive programs like “Medicare and other social safety net programs.”

It is no doubt true that many government programs, such as bank bailouts, farm subsidies, and protective tariffs, favor the well off. But giving “tax breaks” is not exploitation: it is letting people keep their own money. Further, redistributing money to the poor is not a way to protect the integrity of property rights: it is a violation of these rights. Of course, Wilkinson would respond that he rejects …read more


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