Taxes and The Reactionary Mind

I spent the afternoon perusing Mark Lilla’s negative review of Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, and then Alex Gourevitch’s response to Lilla. It all gets a bit airy and abstract, but to bring it back down to ground level I’ve been thinking a lot about the extent to which the question of higher levels of taxation on high-income individuals has come to be the organizing principle of so much of contemporary American politics. Many other issues are in play, of course, but this is the axis around which more and more revolves. And the story here seems to be very much in line with Robin’s framework. High income individuals have never been excited about progressive income taxation, and over the past few decades they’ve mobilized politically against it. At the same time, income inequality has grown and over the past 10-15 years it’s grown very specifically with a concentration in the hands of a very small number of people. Naturally, in a political democracy if “the one percent” end up with a larger and larger share of national resources you’re going to see a coalition mobilize to try to take those resources for various purposes. The richer the one percent get, the more attractive they become as a target and the more they counter-mobilize on behalf of their own interests. And conservatives in American politics today are largely united by a decision to embrace the one percent’s side of the argument.

This point of agreement on a concrete issue of governance and control of resources overwhelms quite “profound” issues of metaphysics and political morality. Many proponents of low taxes on high-income individuals are “supply-siders” who claim that such a tax policy will maximize overall welfare. But other proponents of low taxes on high-income individuals such as Greg Mankiw deny that this is the relevant consideration, and simply say that progressive taxation is immoral. Conversely, economists with very similar views about tax policy find themselves in the opposite political coalitions. Cornell’s Robert Frank says we should have a progressive consumption tax and so does Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard, but one’s on the left and one’s on the right. That’s because Frank’s emphasis is on the idea that we should do more to tax rich people’s consumption, whereas Hubbard’s is on the idea that we should do less to tax rich people’s investment income. People whose beliefs have very different formal properties are allies, while people whose beliefs have very similar formal properties are enemies because the concrete struggle between an impulse to “spread the wealth around” and an impulse to resist and rollback wealth spreading dominates other considerations and shapes the politics of our time.

In some contexts, I don’t think this would be controversial. If I were to make some remark about a conservative faction in the Castro government resisting some proposed reform, it would be understood that the faction in question are Communists who are not defined as a faction by a commitment to Burkean skepticism about the limits of human reason. What’s bound to rub a lot of people the wrong way about Robin’s book is that it’s mean about conservatives, but I would say that we see historically that the “bandwagon with the elites” side of the argument isn’t always the wrong side. There will always be disingenuous, wrongheaded, or simply mistaken versions of the argument that “this thing that would be bad for rich people will also be bad for everyone” but it’s also often true that people dream up ways to stick it to the elites that are themselves counterproductive or worse than the disease. American society in the 1920s was wracked with inequities but the people who reacted to that by becoming Communists were dead wrong. If you want to evaluate policy ideas you do have to actually evaluate the ideas, a “which side are you on?” kind of analysis doesn’t suffice even though it’s descriptively accurate to say that kind of thinking drives much of politics.