PROGRESSIVE TAXATION: Helping Those Less Fortunate Is A Personal, Not Public, Choice

Along with life and liberty, the Declaration of Independence lists the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right for all human beings. For some, this last right is synonymous with a right to money—a right which they believe should be protected by the American government through progressive taxation. But progressive taxation—which assumes that some citizens have too much money and others not enough—implies that the government has a right to punish some and reward others solely based on the size of their bank accounts.

This is a fundamental contradiction. How can I, as an American citizen, have individual rights and the ability to make with my life what I want if I am forced to give the profits of my toil disproportionately to those who have not toiled themselves? No one has an entitlement to private possessions they have not earned.

Of course, we belong to a nation that promises to protect us, educate us and provide us with all the opportunities of our fellow citizens. And we each have to pay our share to the government in order that America may stick to those promises. But each of us should pay a percentage of his or her personal income that is exactly equal to that paid by every other American. If I make less than my neighbor, I have no right to pay a lesser percentage; and if I make more, it would only be vindictive to force me to pay a higher percentage.

In return for this equal payment, America can guarantee no more than equal opportunity to each of its citizens. The government has no right to alter the socio-economic progression of the nation after the free-market ball has been set rolling. Once there is equal opportunity, the government cannot take into its own hands the responsibility of creating equal social outcomes.

One’s moral values must remain detached from one’s political views. While I sympathize with all of those who do not feel that they have reached their ultimate goal of happiness, it would be wrong to let my personal emotions determine my responsibilities as an American citizen. I have always been taught to feel lucky for what I have—and always to give back to those with less than I. For this reason, I always have and always will be supportive of private charities and public service. But this is my personal responsibility, not the government’s. The government has no right to legally force some citizens to give their time and the products of their labor to others.

While it is tragic that many more fortunate citizens do not always feel the urge to give back to those with less, each and every American must be respected as an individual. Individual rights are a fundamental basis for humanity. James R. Cantalupo, the CEO of McDonald’s, is just as much an individual as a cashier in one of his corporation’s chain restaurants. Though externally he probably leads a much different life, and financially he surely has far more in his pockets, he is no different fundamentally than any of the thousands of workers underneath him and should be treated identically.

A specific individual is brought into this world because of an accident of birth, and where each child ends up socio-economically cannot be used by the government for or against her. Judging an individual on a monetary level is as arbitrary as judging one on the color of one’s skin or one’s religious beliefs. Maybe more economically successful individuals were raised in wealthy towns, could afford to be sent to private schools and pay for expensive SAT tutors and so on. Some see this as unfair, and insist that these people should be forced to give some of their excesses to those who have nothing at all. But this assumes that the accidental facts of one’s life can be used as a measure of an American citizen’s individual rights. Those who have been given a life that has enabled them to make a lot of money are treated as greedy and immoral, while those who have been given a disadvantaged life are rewarded for something they did not earn.

But equality of opportunity does not mean that each and every citizen will start at the same socioeconomic position in life. Just because all Americans are entitled to identical resources does not mean that all should be given those resources. For American happiness cannot be weighed on a collective, utilitarian scale: the government has no right to decide at what level of comfort each individual ought to live. Instead, it grants us the individual rights demanded by “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and we are each free to follow our individual beliefs to any extent that we want to, provided that we do not actively harm anyone else. Anything else would be a denial of American freedom.

Laura F. Delano ’05 is a social anthropology concentrator in Winthrop House.