Comforting the Comfortable, Or Why Andrew Sullivan Isn’t a Reliable Guide To The Pathologies of the American Uber-Class
Over at Balloon Juice, a number of posts culminating here, and a gazillion (technical term alert) comments, have fully roasted Andrew Sullivan (and James Joyner) for their whimpering over the hurt feelings of the deserving rich.
That last link from John Cole decisively rends from limb to limb the pathetic straw men trotted out by Sullivan and Joyner. It is not the rich that require deference for their contribution to the nation’s well being; rather, it is the working stiff who has forked over what John accurately calls “a direct transfer payment to the most well off in the country.”
I have to confess, I simply don’t understand the possible chain of reasoning that would lead someone to write as Joyner does of taxes on the rich (and remember — we are talking about a very minor increase from historically low levels of taxation), that “to confiscate it from the successful without acknowledgment of the sacrifice… is to court resentment.”
I mean, who knows where to begin: taxation is not confiscation, nor is it a priori an evil, necessary or otherwise, as Sullivan also proclaims.
It is the price you pay for living in a civil society. Reasonable people expect to pay for things like the assurance their airplane will be guided safely to a landing, or that traffic lights will reliable regulate the flow of traffic at 33rd and 3rd, that hurricanes will be tracked and volcanoes monitored…and so on.
Just to hammer this point home, consider this miracle of argument from Joyner:
the meaning of confiscate is not controversial. Merriam-Webster defines it thusly:
1 : to seize as forfeited to the public treasury
2 : to seize by or as if by authority
Surely, when the government takes my money from me on the threat of civil and/or criminal action for non-compliance, it qualifies a confiscation. That it thinks it has better use for it than I do doesn’t change that. Nor, even, does the necessity of the services for which the funds are expropriated.
Uh…well no. This is as completely wrong and wrong headed as it is possible to be in such a short space.
Just to begin, here’s Joyner’s own source on the definition of the word “tax,” verb first:
1: to assess or determine judicially the amount of (costs in a court action)
2: to levy a tax on
and now the noun:
1: a: a charge usually of money imposed by authority on persons or property for public purposes
b: a sum levied on members of an organization to defray expenses
See where this is going: to confiscate is to seize; to tax is to levy. In the context of a democracy, taxation is a collective decision; confiscation is a particular decision, which may or may not be legitimate. In the US, the people, through their representatives decide whether to tax themselves. This is not the same thing as a confiscation, as ought to be obvious to Oxford, Harvard and West Point educated thinkers. The failure to recognize this distinction is, I believe morally deranged and deranging. It asserts that all attempts to levy the costs associated with securing the lives and property of 300 million people jostling cheek by jowl are at least potentially illegitimate — that’s the implication of Joyner’s “by or as if” — and of Sullivan’s witless cheerleading assent.
Down that road lies Galt’s hell.
I’m like Cole in one thing: I keep thinking that Sullivan is smarter, or rather, for he’s clever enough, more self-reflective enough than to fall for this kind of nonsense.
But he’s not; this isn’t a new trope for him — and the ease with which he tosses off nonsense doubling down on Joyner’s use of terms like “confiscate” to describe taxation* confirms that this is just part of the essential toolkit with which he approaches the world, a romanticization of the hero (George Bush, back in the day, the lonely entrepeneur now) for whom any criticism, any constraint is anathema.
But just as it was dangerous as hell to indulge in hagiography of W, so it is to mindlessly celebrate the rich as those who will somehow withdraw all their goodness from society if we don’t make sure we tuck them up nicely, with a warm glass of milk, between their sheets of flawless felted Benjamins.
There. I feel better.
And now…on to part two, where we can actually look at who the super rich are, and decide for ourselves whether they are owed a tongue-bath from the grateful masses.
Image: Pieter Brueghel the Younger, “The Tax Collector” 1620-1640.