Thursday, December 1, 2011

Does it make sense for conservatives to complain about almost half of Americans paying no federal income taxes?

Nope, says National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru.

One especially clever point by Ponnuru, in response to the argument often made by conservatives that "the more people fall off the income-tax rolls, the more will support federal activism":

The story . . . relies on implausible psychological assumptions. It assumes that people who pay payroll taxes but not income taxes make a sharp distinction between the two. But what if they, or many of them, simply think that they have paid taxes? It assumes, further, that immediate circumstances matter more than long-term ones. When conservatives argue for tax cuts for high-income voters, or against tax increases for them, we often point out that some people who are “rich” today will not be in ten years, and vice versa. We argue, further, that high taxes reduce the incentive to work, save, and invest, which presupposes that people can anticipate the taxes they will pay if they gain income. But if they can anticipate future taxes, then the fact that they do not happen to pay income taxes at the moment should not matter.

That point has special relevance for parents who are paying no taxes because of the child tax credit. That credit will not be available to them when their children have become adults. Parents are almost by definition more oriented to the long term, on average, than other voters. They ought to be able to see that their taxes are going to go up when their children grow up, and that if they vote for big government now they will have to pay the bill later. . . .

To seek to raise taxes on poor and middle-class people would be a terrible mistake. The idea is bound to be unpopular. And it would alter the character of conservatism for the worse . . . [by] becom[ing] a creed openly focused on helping one group at the expense of another, a kind of mirror image of egalitarian liberalism.