Is It Liberty or Justice?

Americans find the income tax morally wanting

Posted Jun 01, 2012

According to a report in the Huffington Post, some middle-class Americans find that the income tax morally unacceptable.

The study, involving 24 small-business owners in the South, found that respondents assessed the tax not in economic terms but in moral ones. Despite the study’s small sample, I think the study is an accurate reflection of many Americans’ attitudes. The Tea Party and the popularity of libertarianism have caused many to find the tax income a questionable enterprise.

But there is a countervailing attitude in the US and this is the one that holds that the wealthy aren’t paying their fair share. The wealthy either avoid taxes by knowing how to use every available loophole or accumulate much of their wealth through capital gains, which are taxed at a lower rate than income. The Occupy Wall Street protests have made the notion of the 99 percent a potent political slogan.

These two groups reflect a divide that seems to be growing wider. Both have a point. Those who disdain the income tax place personal freedom as their main value. They believe that hard work should be rewarded and the income tax undercuts that value.

Those who are critical of income tax loopholes and breaks for the wealth hold another value as primary. For them social justice is most important. They hold to the notion that society works best and is most fair when there aren’t great gaps between the wealthiest and the rest of society and that a progressive income tax is one of the best ways of achieving a more equitable society.

So while both ends of the political spectrum are disgruntled with the income tax, their solutions are radically different: one wants it abolished while the other wants it applied fairly.

Behind these two approaches stand two different views of human nature. The first views the social world as extending from the individual to society while the other understands the individual as emerging from a social context.

The first view is distinctly modern and has many advantages and virtues. It values the person as a person and holds the individual responsible for his or her own actions. While it may and often does lead to selfishness, indifference and greed, at its best it stands for something infinitely valuable: the dignity and worth of the individual person.

The second view is more historic and also has many advantages and virtues. It understands that human beings are relational creatures whose highest and best selves emerge in a context that it mutual enhancing. It is concerned with everyone in society and promotes compassion as a social good. While it may and often does lead to political, religious and social conformity and oppression, at its best it also stands for something infinitely valuable: the centrality of ethics in human flourishing.

So the debates around taxes are useful and, in their own ways, both are right. But the reality is that society functions at its best when both personal freedom and social justice are incorporated into the social and political fabric. These two values sometimes are at odds and therefore need to be balanced against each other. That requires the ability to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other side’s claims and the willingness to compromise.

If only the Pledge of Allegiance wasn’t performed so routinely, we might actually say it differently and place the emphasis on the conjunction, “With liberty and justice for all.