Keith Burgess-Jackson is a self-styled conservative with whom I had a cordial online relationship about a dozen years ago. Our relationship foundered for reasons that are trivial and irrelevant to this post. I continued to visit KBJ’s eponymous blog occasionally (see first item in “related posts”, below), and learned of its disappearance when I I tried to visit it in December 2017. It had disappeared in the wake of a controversy that I will address in a future post.
In any event, KBJ has started a new blog, Just Philosophy, which I learned of and began to follow about a week ago. The posts at Just Philosophy were unexceptionable until February 5, when KBJ posted “Barry M. Goldwater (1909-1998) on the Graduated Income Tax”.
KBJ opens the post by quoting Goldwater:
The graduated [income] tax is a confiscatory tax. Its effect, and to a large extent its aim, is to bring down all men to a common level. Many of the leading proponents of the graduated tax frankly admit that their purpose is to redistribute the nation’s wealth. Their aim is an egalitarian society—an objective that does violence both to the charter of the Republic and [to] the laws of Nature. We are all equal in the eyes of God but we are equal in no other respect. Artificial devices for enforcing equality among unequal men must be rejected if we would restore that charter and honor those laws.
He then adds this “note from KBJ”:
The word “confiscate” means “take or seize (someone’s property) with authority.” Every tax, from the lowly sales tax to the gasoline tax to the cigarette tax to the estate tax to the property tax to the income tax, is by definition confiscatory in that sense, so what is Goldwater’s point in saying that the graduated (i.e., progressive) income tax is confiscatory? He must mean something stronger, namely, completely taken away. But this is absurd. We have had a progressive (“graduated”) income tax for generations, and income inequality is at an all-time high. Nobody’s income or wealth is being confiscated by the income tax, if by “confiscated” Goldwater means completely taken away. Only in the fevered minds of libertarians (such as Goldwater) is a progressive income tax designed to “bring down all men to a common level.” And what’s wrong with redistributing wealth? Every law and every public policy redistributes wealth. The question is not whether to redistribute wealth; it’s how to do so. Either we redistribute wealth honestly and intelligently or we do so with our heads in the sand. By the way, conservatives, as such, are not opposed to progressive income taxation. Conservatives want people to have good lives, and that may require progressive income taxation. Those who have more than they need (especially those who have not worked for it) are and should be required to provide for those who, through no fault of their own, have less than they need.
Yes, Goldwater obviously meant something stronger by applying “confiscatory” to the graduated income tax. But what he meant can’t be “completely taken away” because the graduated income tax is one of progressively higher marginal tax rates, none of which has ever reached 100 percent in the United States. And as KBJ acknowledges, a tax of less than 100 percent, “from the lowly sales tax to the gasoline tax to the cigarette tax to the estate tax to the property tax to the income tax, is by definition confiscatory in [the] sense” of “tak[ing] or seiz[ing] (someone’s property) with authority”. What Goldwater must have meant — despite KBJ’s obfuscation — is that the income tax is confiscatory in an especially destructive way, which Goldwater elucidates.
KBJ asks “what’s wrong with redistributing wealth?”, and justifies his evident belief that there’s nothing wrong with it by saying that “Every law and every public policy redistributes wealth.” Wow! It follows, by KBJ’s logic, that there’s nothing wrong with murder because it has been committed for millennia.
Government policy inevitably results in some redistribution of income and wealth. But that is an accident of policy in a regime of limited government, not the aim of policy. KBJ is being disingenuous (at best) when he equates an accidental outcome with the deliberate, massive redistribution of income and wealth that has been going on in the United States for more than a century. It began in earnest with the graduated income tax, became embedded in the fabric of governance with Social Security, and has been reinforced since by Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, etc., etc., etc. Many conservatives (or “conservatives”) have been complicit in redistributive measures, but the impetus for those measures has come from the left.
KBJ then trots out this assertion: “Conservatives, as such, are not opposed to progressive income taxation.” I don’t know which conservatives KBJ has been reading or listening to (himself, perhaps, though his conservatism is now in grave doubt). In fact, the quotation in KBJ’s post is from Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative. For that is what Goldwater considered himself to be, not a libertarian as KBJ asserts. Goldwater was nothing like the typical libertarian who eschews the “tribalism” of patriotism. Goldwater was a patriot through-and-through.
Goldwater was a principled conservative — a consistent defender of liberty within a framework of limited government, which defends the citizenry and acts a referee of last resort. That position is the nexus of classical liberalism (sometimes called libertarianism) and conservatism, but it is conservatism nonetheless. It is a manifestation of the conservative disposition:
A conservative’s default position is to respect prevailing social norms, taking them as a guide to conduct that will yield productive social and economic collaboration. Conservatism isn’t merely a knee-jerk response to authority. It reflects an understanding, if only an intuitive one, that tradition reflects wisdom that has passed the test of time. It also reflects a preference for changing tradition — where it needs changing — from the inside out, a bit at a time, rather from the outside in. The latter kind of change is uninformed by first-hand experience and therefore likely to be counterproductive, that is, destructive of social and economic cohesion and cooperation.
The essential ingredient in conservative governance is the preservation and reinforcement of the beneficial norms that are cultivated in the voluntary institutions of civil society: family, religion, club, community (where it is close-knit), and commerce. When those institutions are allowed to flourish, much of the work of government is done without the imposition of taxes and regulations, including the enforcement of moral codes and the care of those who unable to care for themselves.
In the conservative view, government would then be limited to making and enforcing the few rules that are required to adjudicate what Oakeshott calls “collisions”. And there are always foreign and domestic predators who are beyond the effective reach of voluntary social institutions and must be dealt with by the kind of superior force wielded by government.
By thus limiting government to the roles of referee and defender of last resort, civil society is allowed to flourish, both economically and socially. Social conservatism is analogous to the market liberalism of libertarian economics. The price signals that help to organize economic production have their counterpart in the “market” for social behavior. That behavior which is seen to advance a group’s well-being is encouraged; that behavior which is seen to degrade a group’s well-being is discouraged.
Finally on this point, personal responsibility and self-reliance are core conservative values. Conservatives therefore oppose state actions that undermine those values. Progressive income taxation punishes those who take personal responsibility and strive to be self-reliant, while encouraging and rewarding those who shirk personal responsibility and prefer dependency on others.
KBJ’s next assertion is that “Conservatives want people to have good lives, and that may require progressive income taxation.” Conservatives are hardly unique in wanting people to have good lives. Though most leftists, it seems, want to control other people’s lives, there are some leftists who sincerely want people to have good lives, and who strongly believe that this does require progressive income taxation. Not only that, but they usually justify that belief in exactly the way that KBJ does:
Those who have more than they need (especially those who have not worked for it) are and should be required to provide for those who, through no fault of their own, have less than they need.
Did I miss KBJ’s announcement that he has become a “liberal”-“progressive”-pinko? It is one thing to provide for the liberty and security of the populace; it is quite another — and decidedly not conservative — to sit in judgment as to who have “more than they need” and who have “less than they need”, and whether that is “through no fault of their own”. This is the classic “liberal” formula for the arbitrary redistribution of income and wealth. There’s not a conservative thought in that formula.
KBJ seems to have rejected, out of hand (or out of ignorance), the demonstrable truth that everyone would be better off — far better off — with a lot less government involvement in economic (and social) affairs, not more of it. That is my position, as a conservative, and it is the position of the many articulate conservatives whose blogs I read regularly.
It is a position that is consistent with the values of personal responsibility and self-reliance. Conservatives embrace those values not only because they bestow dignity on those who observe them, but also because the observance fosters general as well as personal prosperity. This is another instance of the wisdom that is embedded in traditional values.
Positive law often conflicts with and undermines traditional values. That is why it is a conservative virtue to oppose, resist, and strive to overturn positive law of that kind (e.g., Roe v. Wade, Obergefell v. Hodges, Obamacare). It is a “conservative” vice to accept it just because it’s “the law of the land”.
I am left wondering if KBJ is really a conservative, or just a “conservative“.
Related reading: Yuval Levin, “The Roots of a Reforming Conservatism“, Intercollegiate Review, Spring 2015
Gains from Trade (A critique of KBJ’s “conservative” views on trade)
Why Conservatism Works
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
My View of Libertarianism
The War on Conservatism
Another Look at Political Labels
If Men Were Angels
Libertarianism, Conservatism, and Political Correctness
Disposition and Ideology