What’s Fair?

Who knows what, if anything, congressional Tea Partiers and their fellow travellers had in mind when they signed on to Grover Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge.  Those not in the grip of obscure theocratic doctrines probably thought that the pledge is in line with libertarian positions to which they nominally adhere.  But this thought is more aspirational than real.

In recent decades, a few economists and philosophers have found ways to refashion long discredited libertarian positions; what they have come up with, though flawed, is at least not obviously untenable.  And because libertarianism draws on intuitions that capitalist institutions reinforce, their views can seem appealing to otherwise reasonable people.  No doubt, this is why, lately, as a bipartisan war on the remnants of capitalism with a human face has gained momentum, libertarian views have come back into the fold.

But no thought out libertarian position justifies the Norquist pledge.  The reason why is plain: most libertarians are not anarchists — they acknowledge a need for at least a minimal state, one that establishes law and order and national defense.  Most libertarians also think that there are at least some goods in addition to security that markets cannot supply and that states can legitimately provide.  For states to discharge these functions, they require revenue, most of which they obtain through taxation.  How much revenue a state needs depends on particular circumstances; therefore the nature and extent of the tax system thoughtful libertarians would support must be sensitive to prevailing conditions.  There is no level that can be identified in general, and therefore no way to justify the precise level that pledge-takers regard implicitly as acceptable.

Unless, miraculously, the Bush-Obama tax structure is just right (or perhaps a tad too high) – perhaps due to the interventions of the God of Republican nomination-seekers — those who take the Norquist pledge place themselves in the grip of an arbitrary constraint.  Why would they do that?  Surely, not, as liberal pundits claim, because they are committed to a minimal state; “no new taxes” can only get to that (or any other) result by sheer luck.  The conclusion is therefore inescapable: insofar as they are not simply doing the bidding of their paymasters, they must think that there is some electoral advantage – either for themselves or for the Republican party – in assuming a stance that is preposterous on its face.   They may present themselves as principled political actors but in fact they are only guileful and opportunistic.

The moralistic babble emanating from Democratic quarters is less noxious, but no less confused.  Obama Democrats say that they want sacrifices to be shared because it would be unfair if they are not.  That is a fine idea, but what it comes down to in practice is that they will endorse the attrition of New Deal and Great Society programs provided plutocrats (“shrewd businessmen” in Obama speak) and corporations (“people,” in the view of his most likely rival) don’t get off scot-free.  This position is not only shamefully tepid; it is myopic.

Lets stipulate that, as philosopher John Rawls famously put it, justice is “the first virtue” of social institutions as truth is to scientific theories; and lets further agree to think of justice as fairness rather than, say, adherence to irrefragable property rights. as some libertarian philosophers insist.  Then fairness matters preeminently; and, insofar as there is a problem we collectively confront, it follows that everyone should contribute his or her fair share towards its solution.   A general commitment to fairness leaves open what this entails in practice, but let that pass.

Lets also concede that the deficit is a problem of this sort, leaving aside all the ways that Wall Street recklessness created the conditions for it, and how the Obama administration collaborated with the Republican leadership in contriving it.  Lets even ignore how eminently fixable the problem is.  There is no need for radical solutions: the long term deficit would be even less of a problem than it was a decade ago if we restored the tax structure of the pre-Bush years, cut military and other “national security” spending to pre-9/11 levels and, for good measure, enacted genuine health care reform so that costs come into line with those of other advanced countries.

Finally, lets concede that the long-term deficit problems we confront constitute an immediate “crisis.”  This has become conventional wisdom at least since Obama signaled in his 2010 State of the Union address that he’d join Republicans in promoting the idea.  It is patently false, but let that pass too.

In other words, contrary to almost all the relevant facts, lets suppose that our deficit problems are like the problems people face in the aftermath of a natural disaster – that they affect us all equally, and that we must resolve them together.  Then indeed it would be unfair for the rich – or any other sector of the population — to shift their fair share of the costs of dealing with the deficit onto others, just as Obama and other leading Democrats proclaim.

To be sure, it isn’t clear what a fair distribution of burdens would look like in this case; the idea floated by Obama – from which, true to form, he is sure to retreat  — that a dollar of taxes should balance a dollar of spending cuts is every bit as arbitrary as acquiescing to the existing tax structure while categorically rejecting any and all “revenue enhancements.”  But this too is not the main problem.

The main problem with what the Democrats are promoting is that it is confused: because in ascertaining what fair taxation involves, it is indefensible and misleadingly myopic to focus, as they do, just on taxes themselves.  To do so is to fall back into the spontaneous – and indefensible – libertarianism to which Republicans implicitly appeal, according to which justice is not about fairness, but about accommodating to property rights that are somehow given before considerations of fairness kick in.   In proper libertarian fashion, Obama’s position regards taxation as a (justifiable but unfortunate) imposition upon a morally defensible economic system constituted by capitalist market relations.

In reality, taxation is only one aspect of a larger economic system in which property rights, public policy, and the means through which the state finances itself are joined together into a seamless whole.  It is this entire system, not one of its integral parts taken in isolation, that is the proper unit of analysis in ascertaining the justice (or fairness) of the distribution of burdens and benefits.

What justice requires with respect to economic systems is among the most investigated issues in social philosophy. But because all plausible views appeal to a core notion of fairness, according to which like cases should be treated alike, and because they all adhere to the fundamental conviction, inherent in the idea of morality itself, that, where moral principles obtain, all persons count equally, they all share one very general feature: that there is a presumption for equal treatment and therefore, where the distribution of burdens and benefits is at issue, for equal distributions.

This does not mean that justice requires equal distributions; only that equality is, as it were, the default position from which deviations must be defended.  Presumptions can be and typically are overridden.

Needless to say, there is no general consensus on what must be the case for inequalities to be justifiable.  But it is extremely unlikely that tax increases for the well-off equaling the dollar amount of cutbacks in services suffered by the poorly off could follow from any defensible view.

Thus there is no conception of equality or theory of justice from which Obama’s position follows.  His moralizing is not principled; it is meretricious.  It has less to do with just taxation, than with getting the victims of an unjust economic regime to go along with policies that, except for being more flexible, are in line with those Republicans favor.

In the distant pre-Clinton past, when Democrats were more generous in spirit and less philosophically confused, the conventional wisdom was that equality is indeed an estimable value but that  “efficiency” – in other words, high levels of productivity — is too.  It was then thought that these ideals are sometimes at odds, presumably because egalitarian social policies give rise to an incentive structure that discourages productive labor.  The problem, then, is to strike a balance between two partially conflicting ideals by trading off efficiency for equality and vice versa.

This very salutary and progressive view was not without its problems, in part because efficiency and equality are not as much at odds as is widely supposed.  But there is no need to delve into that issue here because it is plain that the principal beneficiaries of today’s tax policies are hardly incentivized to work hard to advance the real economy.  In this stage of capitalism, the generation of real wealth has given way increasingly to the remunerative but socially useless and ultimately parasitical task of making money out of money.

Thus if fairness is the issue and if myopia is overcome, what is called for are policies vastly more far-reaching than the Democrats’ starting-point negotiation position, and more far-reaching too than the far saner positions Democrats used to advance.  But, of course, anything like that is entirely off the table in Obama’s bipartisan America.

Andrew Levine is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).