The Ethicist: Five Reasons to Tax the Rich (#5)

The Spectator’s Ethicist, Rachel Haliburton, provides convincing — and sometimes counter-intuitive — arguments as to why making the rich pay their fair share of taxes benefits us all. (Read Reason #1Reason #2,Reason #3 and Reason #4. For proof the Ethicist is in tune with the current Zeitgeist, read about US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s plan to — you guessed it — tax the rich and US Senator and potential Democratic presidential nominee Elizabeth Warren’s plan to introduce a 2% wealth tax.) This week: the grand finale.

 

Over the last five columns, I have been exploring arguments that assert that raising taxes on the rich and using the extra revenue generated to create and enhance social programs would be beneficial for everyone, including the wealthy. With the help of my friend, political philosopher and ethicist Dr. François Cotc-Vaillancourt, I have considered the argument that the wealthy benefit to a greater degree from the goods that society has to offer than do the poor; the argument that higher taxes create a more efficient society; the argument that places with higher taxes are much more desirable places to live than jurisdictions with lower ones; and the argument that higher taxes are good for business. To a greater or lesser extent, these arguments are practical: they look at the actual benefits that accrue from higher taxes on the rich (which, for the sake of these arguments, I defined as those making over $100,000 a year).

The final argument I want to consider, the subject of this month’s column, is arguably the most philosophical, the most purely ethical, and the most abstract: as such, it serves as a kind of framing argument for all of the other arguments we have looked at, and makes them ultimately ethical arguments as well. That is to say, the arguments we have already considered are, in a sense, subsidiary to this final argument, offering practical reasons for following through on the ethical implications of the argument we shall explore this month.

Another distinguishing feature of this final argument is that it focuses our attention on the truly wealthy – the so-called one-percenters, or those who are close to them in wealth – who live in a different world than the rest of us, even those who fall into the upper middle classes in terms of income. This argument comes from philosopher Michael Sandel, and it can be stated very simply:

Skyboxes are bad for society.

 

To see how this argument works, I have to come full circle, and go back to some of the points I made at the beginning of this series. Readers may recall that I was inspired to consider the issue of taxation by the NDP’s proposal in the recent Ontario election to raise taxes on the well off in order to pay for enhanced social services. This proposal was termed “class warfare” by some, and Mark Milke, writing in Maclean’s magazine, nicely captured the underlying thinking behind this perspective when he argued that the poor, who pay little or nothing to support the services and benefits they receive from society, are exploiting the rich, who pay most of the costs. As he succinctly put it, this proposal was an “eat the rich” tax grab.

While the Marxists among us might be flummoxed by the claim that the poor exploit the rich, what is important for all of us to note about this claim is that it is an ethical one: it asserts not that it would be practically difficult to raise taxes on the wealthy, or even economically detrimental to do so, but that it would be unfair — and, therefore, morally wrong — to do so. The rich, this argument implies, would be disadvantaged in unfair ways, would, indeed, be exploited by those who have not worked as hard or contributed as much.

But this claim completely misunderstands what it means to be a member of society. Being a member of society requires us to acknowledge the importance and place of mutual and reciprocal benefits and burdens, of shared values and goals, of what it means to be a citizen and not merely a taxpayer. Societies are healthy, that is to say, when most members believe they are engaged in a mutual endeavor that offers benefits to all, even if the benefits each particular person receives differs from those other individuals receive. When members recognize that it is not only the poor who benefit from the goods and services society has to offer, but the middle classes, the rich and the enormously wealthy as well. While the poor may receive their benefits in the form of welfare payments or other subsidies, the middle classes from subsidized post-secondary education, the rich from business incentives, the enormously wealthy benefit in many ways as well: from safe communities, from a system of laws and a legal system that upholds their property rights, and from governmental agencies that ensure that the foods they eat and the pharmaceuticals they use are safe.

For each of us as individuals, and all of us as members of a community, to recognize the mix of obligations and benefits that come from our participation in society, we need to have shared experiences, and we need to know one another. It follows from this that it is dangerous when the enormously wealthy are able to live lives that are very different from those enjoyed by their fellow citizens, and are largely able to socialize and work only with those who are like them. The ability of the truly wealthy to set themselves apart is pernicious for society, because it allows these individuals to forget that they are members of a larger community, one which includes people whose lives and experiences are very different than their own.

 

Moreover, and somewhat ironically, given that it is the enormously wealthy who have, in many parts of the industrialized world, done the most to persuade politicians to enact policies which have allowed them to pay lower and lower taxes, this situation is dangerous for them as well: the kind of inequality that results, and the anger it spawns, is precisely what has, historically, led to revolutions. François observed that the wealthy in France, before the French Revolution, paid no taxes at all – and we all know how well that turned out for them. He continued:

Michael Sandel talks about the “skyboxification” of our society. Skyboxes are when you go to see a baseball match, a hockey game, and you have these skyboxes which are distinct from the rest of the seats, and they have other doors, private bathrooms, other restaurants. So basically, the whole experience of going to a game is not just that some people are in the front, they pay a bit more, some people are at the back, they pay a bit less, which is okay. Many of us are not absolute equalitarians. We can see some people being richer than others. No, the problem is when you have a completely separate experience. And why is it a problem? Because we start to lose the sense that we form a community.

If you are born in a gated community, you are raised in a gated community, you go to different private schools, all the services you get are from a different municipal system, then you go to universities which are no longer accessible to the poor – for example, you have public universities for everyone else and private elite universities for the very rich – then you get a job in a field that is no longer accessible to the poorest, then you’re going to live your whole life not being, for example, Canadian, but rich Canadian… and, in many ways, you’re going to identify more closely with the rich Americans, the rich Germans than with your fellow Canadian citizens, even the people in your home town.

Francois noted that this skybox objection isn’t really about economics at all. Rather:

[I]t’s all about community. We are stretching and weakening the communal understanding by having community members who are very, very rich and very, very poor. Just for that reason, redistributing wealth can be justified, not simply to pay for healthcare and other social goods, but to redistribute wealth, especially when money is inherited – just so people have a somewhat similar life, so that you struggle at some point, you have to have a summer job even if you’re a rich person, you go to the same schools, you move through the same spaces, you are in the same room when watching a hockey game.

Sure, you can still take your vacation in St. Bart’s or Paris, and shop much more than others, but at least you’re going to be somewhat part of the same day-to-day living. That’s something that’s essential for society, that’s the ethical community argument for high taxation. We must prevent some people from existing in a completely different world than their fellow citizens. Donald Trump could come from Mars – he is not close to the struggle and life of most of the citizens in the US, and that leads not only to bad policies, but also just to distance, and that’s bad for community. Again, that’s not saying that the rich are cruel – in this case, they are not evil, not mean – it’s just that we should not allow people to completely stretch away from the community, either by being too rich or too poor.

Here is my final thought: all of us, rich and poor, educated or uneducated, young or old, are in this together. While some of our life goals are personal, many are shared with other people (we all want our children to go to good schools, to have access to good medical care, clean drinking water, safe communities, and so-on), and much of what each of us needs to live well is dependent on the contributions of others.

The state, through taxation, is able to create institutions and programs which benefit us all in various ways, and which allow each of us to access goods that we would be unable to achieve, or to pay for, if we were left entirely to our own devices. In a society with minimal or no taxes, no one, not even the rich, would be able to live well; in a society with high taxes, the rich might have to pay more, but everyone, including themselves, will benefit. It’s time for more of us to start challenging the rhetoric of “class warfare,” the assumption that lower taxes are good for business and higher taxes bad for efficiency; time to begin talking about our mutual obligations and shared goals; and long past time to start talking about what it means to be a citizen rather than merely a taxpayer.

 

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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