The White House website says this in explaining the "Buffett Rule," an initiative that would obligate anyone making at least $1 million a year to an effective tax rate of at least 30 percent:
"Anyone who does well for themselves should do their fair share in return, so that more people have the opportunity to get ahead — not just a few."
But in 2009, the top 10 percent of income earners paid 71 percent of all federal income taxes paid, even though they earned 43 percent of all the income earned. The bottom half paid 2 percent of all federal income taxes, even though they earned 13 percent of all the income. (This according to the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington.)
That all sounds more than a little unfair to the folks whose wealth is driving our economy and creating jobs and income. But it's not just that the Buffet Rule itself is unfair, or even that it wouldn't work. The wealthy aren't wealthy because they are stupid, they will figure out ways to avoid the higher tax rates, and thank goodness: Historically, lower tax rates lead to more federal revenues and higher tax rates to less.
Most of the arguments around progressive tax plans tend to focus on such things — who really pays the most taxes, would they really work to bring in more money, what would they do to the economy and so on. These are important questions, but not the most important ones.
There is another question that is not routinely asked, and I wish Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and others would start asking it: Why is it that many so-called progressive folks denounce the right of people to spend their own money as they see fit, but think it's OK to take that money from its owners and spend it as they — the progressives — see fit?
Isn't that really at the core of so much of our political debates today? Think about it. The same people who clamor for ever higher and more "fair" tax rates on the so-called wealthy are demanding that these folks pay more taxes because it's somehow morally wrong for them to keep a significant percentage of their own money. But those very same progressives somehow think it's "moral" to take the money of the wealthy to spend as they — the progressives — see fit on their own government projects.
How can that be?
I'm not against people being obligated to pay taxes. (Though I'd prefer a flat income tax or consumption-based tax.) I think that one can make the case that we, as a free people, have to support the government we hire.
But that's the point. Such an orientation recognizes that wealth actually belongs to those who create it. Within that moral framework, we can then argue about the most productive and, I would suggest, the lowest tax rates possible.
Look, I served on the Reagan White House staff, and for a long time I was passionate about politics. But as regular readers may know, in recent years my focus has become less about politics and more about family and culture and community.
Well, it seems to me that is exactly how this tax issue should be understood.
It's not just an election-year issue. These days, it seems that government is understood as having first dibs on our productivity. It's a profoundly moral question to ask: Why?
Betsy Hart's latest book is "From The Hart: A Collection of Favorite Columns on Love, Loss, Marriage (and Other Extreme Sports)." Reach her through firstname.lastname@example.org.