The Misadventures of Quinxy truths, lies, and everything in between!

24Aug/110

Big Government, Little Government, Taxes, and Death

I was listening to a conservative political Christian radio show yesterday and the segment was about taxes and the size of government. The host pointed out that in Jesus' time the tax rate was 1% of income (raised temporarily to 3% during war), and how everyone from that era would revolt if they were transported to modern times with our 20-40% effective income tax rates. And the host also pointed out that the American Revolution was fought over a tea tax of about 2-3%, and how surely if the founding fathers were here today they'd be leading a new revolt. It must be "fun" to be a rabble rouser, to have a national audience of like-minded people who are happy to nod along as you erect straw man arguments which you then knock down with self-evident, self-congratulatory arguments. What I really wanted was for someone to call in and make the far more reasonable, truthful argument that tax rate alone is a useless measure of societal success or failure, happiness or misery, good politics or bad. The conservative movement's universal position is that low taxes are good, high taxes are bad, without seeming willing to engage in much discussion about the cummulative or general benefit of all the gradually tacked on social programs which only taxes can effectively fund. The real measure of our success is measured by the overall as well as individual condition of taxable citizens, not merely at what rate their money was being taken from their paychecks.

Taking apart this host's specific references to the past is easy. What were the lives like for the average and individual people in Nazareth or Capernaum around 1 A.D.? They may have been able to keep 99% of their income, but what was the revenue-influenced portion of their life like? Did the average citizen then have a comfortable life: was he only required to work reasonable hours, with reasonable working conditions, with reasonable lifespan, with reasonable lives for the children, etc. My best guess would be absolutely not. I would bet the vast majority of people back then worked long hours, worked jobs which involved considerable risk, had little but survival to show for their life of work, and died early, often after seeing their own children die early. Those citizens being able to retain 99% of their income didn't mean they were able to enjoy that 99%; all of it went to what was often subsistance living.

Our improved lives today are not the result of technological improvement so much as they are the result of the ordered world we've built, the infrastructure our society has maintained through the pooled resources of its citizens organized and implemented by our governments. Strip away our many public programs such as a universally accessible education system, cihldhood vaccinations, emergency medical services, police, fire, social security, medicare, unemployment insurance, worker safety laws, etc. and even with our heritage of modern technology we'd be left in miserable shape, arguably no better off than people 2,000 years ago. And while the comparison between life in 1776 and today wouldn't be as stark, I find it hard to imagine the founding fathers would not have accepted the bulk of the compromise we've had to make with the size of government in order to achieve the more comfortable America in which we live: without their reliance on slavery, on child labor exploitation, on the later exploitation of effectively endentured workers (e.g., Coolies), without the average citizen working until he died, etc.

There is ample room to debate the efficiencies of government, the merits of various programs funded by taxes, the injustice and economic impact of various methods of calculating corporate and individual tax, the possibility of privatizing all that can reasonably be privatized, but to make statements that suggest our system is currently completely broke, that we can or would want to return to a world in which government needed only 1% to assist in improving our world, is brutally helpful.

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