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.

Explore posts in the same categories: bad writing, Conservatives, libertarian nonsense, Stupidity

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11 Comments on “Comforting the Comfortable, Or Why Andrew Sullivan Isn’t a Reliable Guide To The Pathologies of the American Uber-Class”


  1. It seems to me that you almost assert taxes are voluntary because we “collectively” decide to impose them, for purposes we support.

    But obviously “we” is a majority (perhaps a small on), not a unanimous consensus. The benefits don’t accrue to those who pay either.

    Taxes are a necessity, and I think using them for public purposes even redistribution of wealth within reason is legitimate. They are however also coercive, and it isn’t stupid or nonesensical to believe so.

    • KWillow Says:

      By that standard so is paying rent or paying for groceries “coercive” too. We should follow the T-Bagger advice of going back the barter system. I’ll trade you my excellent chili & cornbread for Legal Advice.

      The concept of money is a fantasy, anyway.


  2. […] seems to me that it is almost asserted taxes are voluntary because we “collectively” decide to impose them, for purposes we […]

  3. AJ Hill Says:

    Of all the silly, self-serving libertarian memes, this is surely the most tiresome. Jefferson recognized in the Declaration of Independence that a free, democratic society derives its authority from the assent of its citizens. To withhold this as a matter of “principle” is mere infantile posturing that undermines our basic institutions. My response: grow up and stop whining!


  4. I’m not a libertarian. I agree taxes can be imposed through democratic means. I agree using taxes to redistribute wealth is proper in some amount.

    That said, I think words shouldn’t be defined just because it supports policies we like. I’d define taxes as coerced or mandatory payments, that in the US are (mostly) imposed through democratic means. You can’t choose to not pay them and just forgo government services. You can choose to move into the street and not pay your rent (it’s not a good choice clearly for most of us).

    If the objection is to the word confiscate because it implies taxes are imposed with some kind of due legal or democratic process, I agree.

    If the objection is to saying taxes are coercion, I don’t agree. I imagine most readers of this blog felt coerced to pay for a portion of the war in Iraq for example.


    • In my 2nd to last paragraph I meant to write:

      If the objection is to the word confiscate because it implies taxes are imposed with out some kind of due legal or democratic process, I agree.


  5. I think it was Chomsky who said something like in a democracy citizens would value and celebrate tax day as the day when everyone comes together to contribute to the functioning of their society. But like most values they eventually get converted to disvalues.

  6. Charlie Says:

    Of course we should contribute to the good of the whole but the problem we face now in America is, the wealth and resources of the many are being given to the few, the cost, debt, loss, and risk are being socialized while the profit and benefit are privatized, America is now owned, operated, and controled by the for profit enterprises. America is being systematically fleeced by the conservative ruling power elite. We no longer have a democracy.

  7. Paul Luscher Says:

    This is what happens when you drink the Reagan Kool-Aid. Kills off the higher brain functions. All thinking is done with the reptile brain.

    Funny how these people don’t want to pay taxes, but apparently think that all those gov’t services they take for granted somehow magically fund themselves.

  8. Don Says:

    I am opposed to both legal and illegal immigration. This country is overpopulated, and 21 million Americans are out of work.


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