Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Signposts: A Taxing Problem

I took this picture in London in 2009, but given the way the economy is going in the United States, and the ever-growing problem of homelessness, I suspect we'll be seeing more and more of these signs south of the border in the months and years to come, particularly as the homeless are virtually ignored in Washington, where tax and spending cuts are all that anyone wants to discuss. 

It reminds me of a question that a professor of mine posed to the class on the first day of first year criminal law. "If there was a law," he asked, "that stated it was illegal for anyone to sleep under a bridge, would that be a fair law?" As it seemed to apply equally to everyone, all of us students seemed to think that it was indeed fair. To which the professor asked: "How many rich people have to sleep under a bridge?"

In other words, while such a law would purport to apply to everyone equally, it would in fact be applicable only to homeless people. While it might appear to be a fair, equal law in principle, it wasn't a fair law in practice. As Anatole France wrote: "La majestueuse égalité des lois, qui interdit au riche comme au pauvre de coucher sous les ponts, de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain."

I see the same kind of reasoning applied to defend tax cuts in the United States, by people who seek to further the interests of the wealthy, at the expense of everyone else. On the surface, and in general, these cuts seem to apply to everyone (although specific cuts and exemptions obviously only apply to certain groups), and that's how they're presented to the public. But it's a sham equality, just as a law against sleeping under the bridge is a sham equality. Tax cuts disproportionately benefit the wealthiest members of society, and they have no meaningful impact whatsoever on the vast majority of people, particularly the poor. But for the wealthy and their "front men" (i.e. politicians), if a few more people wind up sleeping under bridges so that they can make even more money, c'est la vie. Besides, they can always pass a law to prohibit it, and present it as the height of fairness, just as they do with tax cuts.

And if the world goes to hell after they're gone, I'm sure they would agree with Louis XIV - "apres moi, le deluge".

Paul Kimball

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