The Ethicist: Five Reasons to Tax the Rich (#1)

Last month. I wrote about taxation, and observed that determining what levels of taxation are fair – and deciding who should pay the most taxes and who should pay the least – will always be substantially ethical decisions, and can never be solely economic or practical ones. While voices on the so-called right – who make the case that taxes, particularly taxes on the rich, should be lowered – have come to dominate public discourse to such an extent that their arguments are seldom challenged, there are a number of counter-arguments that can be made which draw on the assumptions and commitments of those on the so-called left.

François Côté-Vaillancourt

François Côté-Vaillancourt

I won’t rehearse in any detail all the arguments made by those on the right since they are ones with which we are all familiar, but they include the claim that higher levels of taxation on the wealthy are unfair; that raising taxes on these people is bad for business; that higher taxes are detrimental to the economy; that they cost jobs; and that raising taxes on the wealthy constitutes (in an ironically Marxist-sounding turn of phrase) “class warfare,” a term which, when used in political debates, seems to mean the greedy and undeserving poor stealing from the pockets of the hardworking and deserving rich.

These arguments have been so successful that they shape not only public discourse but also government policy across many parts of the Western world, and have done so for the last 30 years or so. As a result, more and more wealth is now controlled by fewer and fewer people, and politicians who run on a platform of raising taxes, no matter how many other benefits they promise, do so at great personal and political peril. It is quite likely, for example, that the Progressive Conservatives won the recent election in Ontario because they promised to lower taxes, and the NDP lost because they promised to raise them.

I recently met with a friend, political philosopher and ethicist, François Coté-Vaillancourt,, who is a passionate and articulate defender of the left-wing side of the debate, to discuss arguments in support of raising taxes on the wealthy, and on the upper middle class. For the purposes of this discussion, I shall assume that we are placing those who make $100,000 or more a year in these categories, and I should note that many university professors would make the cut, although they usually fall at the low end of the range. The arguments that I will be presenting, then, are ones that would justify raising taxes on people like me.


François and I spoke in my comfortable office at the University of Sudbury, surrounded by unwashed coffee mugs and my large collection of books. My office is a comfortable room outside my house that I have been able to make my own, a place where I can meet students, listen to music, read, work on my projects, and even nap, if I so choose and if it is not a time when I am meant to be in the classroom. My office, it is fair to say, is one of the wonderful perks of my job, and the details I have just used to describe it are relevant to the first argument François and I discussed.

I began by asking him to comment on the claims that politicians who want to raise taxes on those who can be considered comfortably well off, or even wealthy, are engaged in “class warfare,” and are asking those who already pay more than their fair share of the costs of society and its institutions to pay even more to benefit those who don’t pay their own way, and who already disproportionately benefit – through things like welfare, subsidized housing, publicly-funded health care, and so-on – from the public goods that societies like ours offer to their members. François’s response turned this commonplace argument on its head.

Not the author's office. (Actually, the professor's study from the film Call Me by Your Name) The Italian villa where it was filmed is for sale.

Not the author’s office. (Actually, the professor’s study from the film Call Me by Your Name. The Italian villa where it was filmed is for sale.)

“It’s interesting,” he said, that claims like these “really frame taxation as a human rights issue. So basically, this argument asserts that some people pay more than others, and we’re all people, so how can we allow some people to pay so much while others are not paying any taxes?” In other words, this argument sees us all as equal individuals, and then asserts that because some individuals are asked to make a greater financial contribution to society than others, they have been taken advantage of, and are therefore being treated unfairly. This unfairness, of course, would only be compounded if the state raised their taxes even further.

However, François observed, this is not how we necessarily ought to understand taxation, and especially the idea of a fair share:

Those arguing from the left have made the case that our ‘fair share’ is not determined by comparing one person to another person. Instead, it’s by comparing what you pay versus what you get from society, and we can focus on the fact that some people receive more from society than others, but those who receive the most from society are not those on welfare, not those who send their kids to public schools, it’s those who are lucky enough to have a great job, a job that gets you not only a high salary but also high social recognition, a high standing in the community, a fulfilling life.

Those among us, that is to say, who are doctors, lawyers, business owners company executives, administrators of hospitals, universities, and colleges, and, yes, university professors, members of parliament, and politicians at the federal, provincial and municipal levels of government, have already benefited hugely from the public goods that our society provides to its members. (For example, by subsidizing the universities that gave us our educations, funding the institutions in which we are employed if we work in the public sector, enforcing the rule of law, upholding contracts, and providing police and fire services to protect our investments of time and money if we work in the private sector, and so-on). In addition, these people are rewarded with fulfilling work, and with the prestige and money that comes with certain job titles.


As we talked, François expanded on this theme:

University professors like us are in the top of the top of the upper class, not because we make the most money, but because we have a wonderful job. Sure, we work long hours, sure, we’ve studied for a long time; however, we are lucky having our job. It’s well paid, and it’s fulfilling, and in that sense, asking people like us to pay more taxes makes sense, because we receive from society a wonderful opportunity which is the luxury of doing great work. Compare that to someone in the lower middle class, who works long hours in a rather unfulfilling job or a manual job, in the service industry, sales, answering phones… it’s not that great, it’s not human flourishing at its best.

Janitor at work. (Source: Nation of Change)

Source: Nation of Change

In addition to such jobs being repetitive, boring, demanding but not intellectually stimulating, sometimes dirty and sometimes dangerous, they don’t pay that much, and they confer very little social prestige. A janitor who works in a hospital does very important work (he is the first line of defense against drug resistant bacteria and other pathogens), work which is physically demanding and sometimes disgusting, but he is not only paid far less than hospital administrators and physicians, he is not given the same kind of social recognition, nor does he enjoy the same kind of social prestige: as long as he does his work well, he is largely invisible, and the importance of what he does is seldom acknowledged.

So, François observed:

When we compare or we try to contrast the fair share that everyone should pay in our society, what does each of us owe to society? It turns out that it makes a lot of sense for the richest and the most favored in our society to pay more, and it also makes a lot of sense for people who are unemployed or underpaid or who work in terrible job conditions to pay less or just not pay anything. It’s not that we are over-taxing the rich, it’s that they should be taxed more. They get more from being members of our society.

The rich, it might be said, and the comfortable (a category I would place myself in), benefit more from the work of garbage collectors, hospital janitors, personal support workers, waitresses and sales clerks, than these people benefit from the existence of people like me. Moreover, writing from the perspective of someone who has worked in the fast food industry and as a waitress while I was a student, I can say with a high degree of certainty that I would much prefer to do the work I do now, even if I had to pay twice as much in taxes as I currently do, than I would like to be a waitress again, even if I paid no taxes at all. Indeed, even if, in some alternative reality, it were the case that waitresses made more money than university professors, there would still be no contest: the fulfillment I get from teaching, research and writing, not to mention the freedom I have to determine how I spend much of my time, far outweighs any satisfaction I got from getting an order right or adding up a bill correctly.


Rachel Haliburton

Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.




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