Zach has repeatedly emphasized the point that top income tax rate brackets in the United States are lower than they have been in the past. This ignores, of course, that other taxes (social security, state income taxes, state sales taxes, etc.) are generally higher. But it is true, as far as it goes. Zach concludes from that isolated fact that the top earners shouldn’t mind having the rates raised on them as their part in “shared sacrifice.” Yet many Republicans have been fairly adamant that these rates not be raised. I really think this puzzles Zach, who can only concluded they must be greedy to want to keep a large portion of what they’ve earned, as opposed to the non-greedy people who get back more from the government than they put in and don’t want to share in the sacrifice at all.
But let me suggest that the debate really isn’t about taxes, or for that matter about spending or the debt ceiling. It is about a fundamental debate over what the proper role of government is in America.
Zach has repeatedly said that all modern Western civilizations are a hybrid of capitalism and socialism. He’s right. Conservatives favor capitalism, but to some extent favor well-regulated markets and do recognize that some social programs are beneficial and desirable. Liberals view capitalism as a necessary evil, but they do recognize it as necessary, since it lays the golden eggs that make the socialist programs possible. But herein lies the problem. Conservatives want as little government as possible consistent with doing what government must do (internal & external security, some regulation, some useful programs (national highway system, for example)). Liberals want as much government as they can have without killing the golden goose.
The problem is that the two visions don’t intersect. The largest government any conservative worthy of the name could support would still be much smaller than the smallest government any liberal worthy of the name would support. Note: It didn’t used to be this way; the explosion of entitlement programs, the liberal support for them, and the radical shift of society generally to the left have caused this divide to open up.
For many years, at least since the Great Society days, liberals have had their way. Conservatives have been in broad retreat, allowing government programs to grow like bad weeds. Finally, as the debt exploded at the end of the Bush era and all of Obama’s reign, conservatives began to push back. It’s like we woke up one morning and realized just how far the scales had tipped in the liberal direction. However, just because the debt was the trigger for the conservative awakening, it should not be the driving force behind the push back.
The issue is not really whether we close the debt gap with tax increases and spending cuts. We’ll have to do both, and the cuts will have to be real, not illusory. If we do it at all.
The issue is what role we want government to play in our lives. Do we want only the government that is necessary? Or do we want all the government we can afford? Or do we want to maintain a government that we can’t afford, leaving our children to deal with the mess? The latter course is the one we’ve been on for the most of the last 80 years (excepting a few years of the Nixon and Clinton administrations), and accelerated vastly in recent years. Even assuming that both sides in the current negotiations wish to change from that course (not at all a safe assumption!) they will not do so in anything more than a papered over way unless they can bridge the gap between the first two philosophies.
Zach has point out that nearly all Western countries are more socialist than we are. So? How’s that working out in Greece right now? Should we follow them like lemmings off a cliff? Or should we step back from the precipice? That’s really what the debate is about. Win that one and the rest, though still very difficult, will be accomplished. Lose that one and all America holds dear will eventually be lost.