After his performance in the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney’s tone-deaf comments about the “47 percent of the people … who are dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them,” have faded, at least temporarily, into the background. He has since apologized for the error of those statements. But Romney’s contentions concerning the 47 percent who “pay no income tax” illustrate a deep tension at the heart of democracy that is worth examining more closely.
“No taxation without representation” was a slogan taken up and popularized by this nation’s Founders, and this idea became an important animating principle of the American Revolution. But that was also an era when landowners had the primary responsibilities in civic life; theirs was the land that was taxed and so theirs too were the rights to vote and be represented. Thus went the logic. But the question that faces us now, nearly two and a half centuries later, is the flip side of the Revolutionary slogan: To what extent should there be representation without taxation?
In the intervening centuries, driven by a wide variety of social, economic, political, and other cultural factors, the franchise was gradually extended to non-landowners, women, ethnic minorities, and the poor. One of the consistent worries from classical liberal thinkers at each stage had to do with the dynamics of class conflict and responsibility. Some of the concern was no doubt rooted in traditional ideas about the limited abilities of the lower classes to contribute to and take responsibility for public life. There are some decidedly anti-democratic, anti-populist, and anti-modern motivations that appear in these discussions.
But another motivating factor for concern about universal suffrage has to do with the realities of political economy and concerns about the protection of minorities against the tyranny of majorities, even wealthy minorities against poor majorities. One of the great pillars of the classical Western tradition is its deep concern for formal equality before the law, its insistence that no one class or group receive systematic favor from the political power. This is one outworking of the biblical warning against partiality for either the poor or (more often) for the rich as it is expressed in the Torah: “Do not pervert justice; to not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (Lev. 19:15 NIV).
The nineteenth-century French political economist and journalist Frédéric Bastiat captured the essence of such threats to the rule of law in his unfinished reflections on what he called “legal plunder.” He once memorably defined government as “the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.” This fiction is based on the idea that many, and perhaps even most, people can live and flourish while the rest (the super-rich, perhaps) pick up the tab.
Bastiat gave a rule for determining when legal plunder occurs: “See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.” So let us look at an example from private relations: Should the richest person at a dinner party always pick up the tab for everyone else? Or is there instead some inherent dignity in each person deciding what to eat and paying for his or her own meal? In the same way, there is a dignity inherent in each citizen having the privilege to contribute materially to what has been characterized as the “cost of civilization.”
Those whose rights to vote and to be represented have been recognized should also be acknowledged as having the responsibility to be invested in, to have some stake in, the unique political experiment that is the United States. This does not mean that progressive taxation is inherently unjust, or that a flat tax is the only permissible system, or even that every single citizen must be a net contributor to the federal coffers. But we do need to acknowledge the variety of ways that people do contribute directly and indirectly to the cost of governing, through sales and property taxes, through activities that grow the economy and the tax base, and through charitable service and contribution that lessens the need for government expenditures. In this way we can recognize the responsibility involved in the maintenance of our commonwealth and the inherent dignity of our shared responsibility, from the wealthiest to the poorest, to contribute, in one way or another, to its upkeep.
“People are beginning to realize that the apparatus of government is costly,” Bastiat wrote, “But what they do not know is that the burden falls inevitably on them.” If we do not begin to recognize the dignity of paying taxes, what is more likely given the nature of our entitlements, our national debts, and the conceptual narrowness of the tax base today, the burden will fall inevitably on our children and our children’s children.