Arthur Brooks, whom I teased in another context a couple of posts ago, straightens us out about fairness and taxes in that cave of wonders, the Washington Post opinion section: more taxes (than whatever number you have in mind, I guess) on people who have a lot of money are unfair.
He sounds his horn to alert us that “rewards are fair when they are proportional to merit”. This prescription has troubled philosophers for centuries, because they have rather stupidly failed to see how easy merit is to discern. Cutting bravely through this fog, Arthur shows (and is sure we see) that merit is measured by income and wealth, with only the most occasional and unimportant errors. (Well, shows is maybe a little strong; it’s sort of an “as any fool can plainly see; I can see!” argument.) Indeed, by halfway through his piece, all the victims of these looming unfair tax increases are entrepreneurs, not a Paris Hilton among them; and conversely, there’s no merit at all for poets, artists, firefighters, doctors undermining the American way by practicing in clinics for the poor instead of LA plastic surgery suites, teachers….
Perhaps it’s meritorious to choose wealthy parents, or get yourself born into a two-parent family that makes you do your homework, and can afford to live where the schools work. There’s certainly no question in Brooks’ mind that all of the amazing increase in American productivity of the last couple of decades is due entirely to the brilliance of the financial sector, and the chief executives of the companies whose paper it plays with. It can’t have anything to do with workers, because they haven’t kept any of the wealth it created, QED! The captains of industry who trashed their companies and walked away fixed for life under golden parachutes, too: nothing but merit there.
Indeed, the logic has the beautiful seamlessness of, um, a circle, completed by
And even if only a portion of the outcomes in life were due to merit, we should still gear our system to the part that is under our control. Otherwise, we have no incentive to be industrious, honest, innovative and optimistic — and there’s no reason to teach these values to our kids, either.
The only incentive for merit is to make money, the only evidence of merit that matters is having made a lot, and it’s both fair and efficient that the people who should pay taxes are the people who haven’t. Dang.
Toward the end, he commits some serious ideological errors for which his colleagues and funders will rap his knuckles cruelly, admitting that
There is certainly a role for government in this system. Private markets can fail due to monopolies (which eliminate competition), externalities (such as pollution), the need for public goods (such as education, which is indispensable in an opportunity society), corruption and crime. Furthermore, most economists agree that some social safety net is appropriate in a civilized society. When the government focuses on these things, it assists the free-enterprise system.
His technical chops are a little rusty; education is great, and it may be a market failure, but it’s certainly not a public good. Still, the nose of the camel is in the tent.
The problem this piece presents to readers, however, is assuredly the fault of careless work at the WaPo, where a harried editor apparently removed the paragraph in which Brooks wraps up his argument. It must read something like this: That government role consumes resources, even after our ruthless extirpation of waste, fraud and abuse, so someone has to be taxed. Now that we know that the rich are meritorious and the poor (except for the odd unfortunate who fell in the safety net) merely lazy or feckless, we can see the logic of taxing the poor until the laudable (and unique) incentive really bites and they stop doing it, and the radiant fairness of allowing them as has to keep it all. A graduated income tax is not the problem; the problem is that the one we have is graduated the wrong way!