Taxing the Rich

UPDATED 03/20/11

The quotation below is the text of a private message I sent to a friend who laments the unequal “distribution” of income and wealth. (I use sneer quotes around “distribution” because the use of the word suggests that there is a pie to be divided; a fallacy that I address later.) The friend likens the United States to corrupt Latin American regimes of yore, where wealth and political power were concentrated in the hands of land owners. He then attributes this mythical situation to Reagan’s “trickle down economics.” Emotion trumps facts, as usual on the left.

I’m sending this for your private consideration, in view of your latest post. I’m not sure what prompted that post, or what it’s based on, but there are a lot of misconceptions about income distribution and tax burdens in the United States. First, income rises across the board; it isn’t just “the rich” who get richer (, unlike Latin America, there is a lot of mobility across income groups; “the rich” are not the same set of people from year to year and decade to decade ( Third, most of “the rich” in the U.S. got that way by earning their incomes (, unlike Latin American aristocrats. Fourth, “the rich” already pay the lion’s share of income taxes (

Although most people in the United States deserve what they earn, because they’re not stealing it from other people, I agree that there are a lot of high rollers who earn more than they would if they weren’t granted special privileges by government. The giveaways to the financial industry are a notorious example. But bankers are only the tip of the iceberg, which extends down through many income levels. Not far from the top are members of Congress, who have one of the best self-created pension rackets going. (A cushy, guaranteed, taxpayer-funded pension amounts to a substantial, untaxed bonus.) Further down the ladder, but still worthy of note, are government employees — whether unionized or not — whose low quit-rates attest to the fact that their compensation (which usually includes generous pension benefits) is above what they could earn in the private sector. It is only in the past few years that public-sector employees have begun the feel the effects of tight budgets. Which is to say that they’ve had a free ride for a long time, at taxpayers’ expense.

Bottom line: A high income isn’t necessarily a sign of political corruption or special privileges. Nor is it clear that high-income earners are paying less than their “share.” A good case can be made that they’re paying too much, because it’s high-income earners whose investments fund growth-producing, job-creating technology and business start-ups. What bothers me is people — at all income levels — who are given special privileges by government, which the rest of us pay for in taxes and higher prices for certain goods and services.


My friend replies:

Thanks for offering your views, but I can’t see how 2% essentially owning 90% is good for the country, nor do I think it will stand.

My response:

I don’t know what you mean by 2% “owning 90%” of the country. It’s true that wealth is concentrated, but that has been true since the birth of the Republic, and it’s to be expected because wealth is strongly (but not perfectly) correlated with income. And except where government grants the kinds of privileges I mentioned earlier, one’s income depends on talent and effort. Further, as I pointed out earlier, income disparities aren’t permanent; there’s plenty of mobility in the U.S., up and down the ladder.

The U.S. isn’t a feudal aristocracy, ripe for revolution because of actual oppression. Some people make it, and some don’t; those who make it (excepting the beneficiaries of government privileges) are able to do so because, in this country, they’re free to reap the fruits of their effort and ability.

Moreover, there’s no fixed “pie” of wealth that’s jealously guarded by a ruling clique. There’s a (usually) growing pie, to which each able person adds as he or she is willing and able. And it belongs to those who produce it — not to “the country.”

If you’re interested in actual facts (as opposed to myths and slogans), you should read the links I sent previously (if you haven’t already) and also this one:

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