The Fiscal Cliff and Shared Sacrifice

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” – Fourteenth Amendment, U.S. Constitution

For lovers of civil liberty and human rights, the Fourteenth Amendment is a great thing. It codified into law the legal doctrine—equal protection—that ensures that governments may not treat me differently than they treat you. Although it took far too long for it to take full effect, with grave missteps (like the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine) along the way, we all benefit from it today.

And yet some of the loudest and most insistent defenders of the Fourteenth Amendment are also some of the people most loudly calling for tax hikes on the ‘rich’ and a more ‘progressive’ taxation system that penalizes monetary success. Taxing one person at zero percent and another at thirty percent is the very definition of unequal protection.

Part of what the equal protection clause should foster is an attitude of social brotherhood . . . a feeling that we are all in this together. Each American citizen—black or white, man or woman, young or old, rich or poor—should be treated the same by their government, which helps to ensure that when government malfunctions it will affect all of those groups roughly equally, and all will have a vested interest in fixing it.

Obviously this works better in theory than in practice, as is especially evident when it comes to the ‘rich’ and big businesses. As many progressives are apt to point out, the rich enjoy greater access to (and influence on) the actions of government as compared to the poor and middle classes. But, on the other hand, many conservatives point out that we soak the rich with punitive taxation—the top one percent of taxpayers, who make nineteen percent of the national income, pay thirty-seven percent of our taxes while almost half of the country pays no federal income tax whatsoever. I wish more people, left and right, would realize that both of these are grave injustices and violations of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.

“The whole idea of our government is this: If enough people get together and act in concert, they can take something and not pay for it.” – P. J. O’Rourke

So it is especially troubling to me that, yet again, President Barack Obama (D) and many other prominent Democrats have gone on the warpath trying to ensure that a budget deal—necessary to avert the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ on January 1, 2013—should include even more tax increases on the already disproportionately-taxed ‘rich.’ Republicans have moderated their positions in the negotiations, and have expressed a willingness to put ‘revenue’ (a euphemism for taxes) on the table as long as the actual marginal rates don’t move, but Obama has flatly refused to compromise on this point. Unfortunately, it would appear that he has again mis-read the electorate and intends to continue thumbing his nose at the opposition party, even if he has to drive off the ‘fiscal cliff’ to do it.

It would be easy for me to throw my hands up and say, fine, jack up taxes on the ‘rich.’ My family income falls well below the $250,000 threshold and my taxes would stay put. I, and the millions and millions of other Americans in the lower and middle classes, can take something—government services at their current level—and not pay for it. Those richies will take care of it for us. After all, they can afford it. What do I care if they have a bit less money for Maseratis and private jets?

As I’ve pointed out before, there’s a word for this attitude. The desire to take something (including income) from somebody else for your own benefit is called ‘envy.’ Traditional Christians identify it as one of the seven deadly sins.

“Any plan to reduce our deficit substantially must reflect American values of fairness and shared sacrifice.” – White House Press Secretary Jay Carney (D)

The United States has a rich tradition of asking her people to band together in times of national crisis, and her people have a rich tradition of doing it. During the two world wars, every man, woman, and child in this country had to sacrifice something to support the war effort—whether it be their convenience, their plans, their livelihoods, their businesses, or their lives. The ‘rich’ had to stop their production lines and produce fighter jets and firearms for the government at cut-rate prices. The ‘poor’ had to deal with food and goods rationing. All adult men, rich and poor alike, faced being drafted into the war itself.

Imagine if we had approached these challenges in the midst of a bout of Obama-style class warfare. Imagine that the ‘rich’ had been asked to give the vast majority of their wealth, income, and assets to the war effort while the average man on the street was permitted to live out his life completely unmolested, perhaps even completely un-taxed. Imagine that the ‘rich’ faced the draft, but the poor and middle classes didn’t. Maybe some of my readers are okay with that; there’s a lot of unjustifiable hatred directed toward the ‘rich’ these days. But any clear-headed American would see this for what it is . . . not a shared sacrifice, but a highway robbery apparently motivated only by selfishness and jealousy.

If we are really going to treat our national fiscal situation as the crisis that it is, and if we are really going to ask the people to make a shared sacrifice, that sacrifice cannot fall unduly on one sub-set of the people. We need to make huge cuts to our federal bureaucracy, and that will have a negative impact on the poor, single mother who relies on food stamps, the employees of federal contractors who rely on unrestrained defense spending, and the oil executives who profit from corporate welfare alike—among countless others. But that’s what a shared sacrifice is; everybody has to give something.

And if we are going to include tax increases in the equation—an approach that I think is wrong-headed and likely to have serious negative repercussions—then it must also involve a shared sacrifice. Simple justice demands that tax hikes either be on the table for everybody, or for nobody. I don’t want my taxes to go up any more than you do, but I’m not so selfish that I’m going to sit here and demand that somebody else pay more taxes so I don’t have to. What a poisonous, hateful attitude that would be. Either we are all in this together, or we’re not.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.