Four GOP Presidential Icons on Tax Fairness and Values
Bruce Bartlett, in the Fiscal Times, makes a really good argument for raising taxes on the wealthy, especially on those who receive capital gains, dividend, and inheritance tax breaks.
What is novel about Bartlett’s argument is that he uses four Republican Presidential icons to make his case.
At least through the 1980s, special tax breaks, such as those for dividends and capital gains, were viewed as unfair and unjustified. Indeed, Ronald Reagan was among those who decried the capital gains break because it meant that rich people, who get most of their income from capital, paid less taxes than the average working man. Consequently, as part of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, he agreed that income from capital gains and wages ought to be taxed at the same rate.
Reagan was building on long tradition by Republicans of demanding fairness in the tax code, which, among other things, meant making sure that capital and labor were treated equally. For example, in his first State of the Union Address in 1861, Abraham Lincoln said, “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”
In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt excoriated big corporations and wealthy men for rigging the system in their favor and not paying their fair share of taxes.
The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth; who insists that the creature of man’s making shall be the servant and not the master of the man who made it. The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have themselves called into being….
We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. It is not even enough that it should have gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.
No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar’s worth of service rendered – not gambling in stocks, but service rendered. The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective – a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.
In 1954, Dwight Eisenhower said that everybody should pay their fair share and denounced unjustified tax cuts. “An unwise tax cutter, my fellow citizens, is no real friend of the taxpayer,” he said.
In short, the real debate on the Buffett rule is about fairness. Its particulars are less important – especially since it has no chance of passage at this time – than the debate that will accompany it. If Republicans are successful in conveying the message that it’s okay for rich people to pay less than working people then this will frame the forthcoming budget debate in a particular way….
If history proved any answers, the one answered by these four Republican presidents is that labor should be taxed at the same or lesser rate than capital gains and inheritance because labor is inherently worth more to society.
Something to think about as discussions on taxes and tax rates continue throughout the year.