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Monday, February 28, 2005

Tax Thy Neighbor

One of the academic projects I’m working on is tracing the philosophical connections conservative politicians make with taxation policy. It’s been an interesting project, and I hope to actually finish it one day soon. Like most academic work, it will probably be dull and boring and make a really good cure for insomnia. However, it does contain some points that I’d like to highlight for you.
Although it doesn’t seem possible now, modern conservatism started out as a distinct minority. Early conservatives made strong ideological connections in their speeches. Later conservatives have done much less of the painting with broad strokes and much more of simply tying conservatism to lower taxes. Ideology was lost to simple political expediency. The reason for opposing taxes was lost and only the benefit of doing so was seen. Like an alcoholic reaching for another drink, the cure for whatever ails the economy lies in the next tax cut.
The problem lies in the ideological groundwork laid by conservative intellectuals. Conservatism is an ideology that conceives of man existing in a natural state of freedom. Every law or demand that is placed on man then becomes a theft of that freedom. Government must be strictly limited because man must be as free as possible, and that freedom includes the ability to spend every penny he makes in the way he sees fit. When government oversteps its bounds, it takes away a man’s freedom. When it has to pay for overstepping its bounds, it over-taxes a man and takes away even more of his freedom.
For something so simple, it has a sort of elegance to it. What you have is a built in reason to always attack government spending and taxation. There is no justification for taking a man’s freedom unless he has shown himself unable to control his own behavior. Thus, simple taxation at a rate that would pay the bills becomes an exercise in morally telling a man that he is not worth the money he earns.
The fly in the ointment is that a man outside of society is not really free. He is enslaved by his own needs and will spend all of his time attending to them. It is only when man joins man in society that specialization of labor occurs. Money is coined. This allows a man the ability to put a value to his skill and to his labor. That value allows him to accumulate money and to gain his freedom to do things other than meet his physical needs of existence.
Man depends upon man in such an intricate web that it is easy to fool yourself into thinking that you can make it on your own. Many of my friends in the country believe this. They could simply farm their land and live the good life for eternity. However, they have no means of producing their own electricity, natural gas, diesel, or even the most basic repair parts. The truth is that they depend on an extended community to provide them with essentials for their way of life.
John Donne said long ago, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” Jesus, when asked to clarify exactly who was meant to be included in the “love thy neighbor as thyself” mantra answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The example of the neighbor was the Samaritan, who was of a race despised by the Jews. The lesson is clear. We are all neighbors. We are all one community. We do not exist individually, but together.
We hear a lot of noise from the right concerning the destruction of our culture. What is culture but a shared sense of community? What is more destructive of community than an overpowering drive for individuality? They are right that there is a rotten core to our culture these days. However, it comes from a flawed ideology that puts the individual above the concerns of society.
The demand for continually reducing taxes in a false demand for greater liberty is only a symptom. So is the false division between red states and blue states. History has shown that America is at its strongest when it pulls together. We are at our most generous when we work together. We are truly American only when we acknowledge our sense of community. In fact, the claim to be “an American people” is a statement of community.

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