Can We Find Healing Power in Income Taxes? — Between Hell and High Water

A couple posts back, I wrote that it was hard to imagine what could bridge the divisions in our country. The issues are only occasionally, and usually incidentally, about policies. Tom Nichols, in The Atlantic, opines that there is no principle dividing the country. He contends that although people will say the issue is “liberty” or “freedom, ” those are merely smokescreens for racial and class resentments, personal grudges and a generalized paranoia that dark forces are manipulating their lives. These, I believe, have come to play such an outsized role in our politics because there has been a profound loss of societal coherence.

I don’t want to idealize a past that never was. Our society has always had warts a plenty. And some of them were generated by the foundational principle of individualist striving. The emphasis on individual freedom and the ability of people to have mastery of their own destiny made America both a unique place in the world and uniquely successful as a country. But, for individualism to work its magic, it needs to be balanced by strong local ties and a generalized sense of social solidarity. Without those guardrails, the logic of individualist striving corrodes any larger scale sense of well-being. And without that, society disintegrates. We turn into a nation of Marlboro cowboys riding the range by ourselves—carrying guns and chasing dreams that can never be realized.

I honestly don’t know if that balance can be re-created. I could offer a broad set of prescriptions as to what might do it, but most them are well beyond what can be managed through politics or policy. But let me propose a modest starting spot: a change in our tax system.

Probably not what you expected. Fair enough. It’s not the first thing that leaps to mind. And there’s a good argument that we could never get to a different tax system without a broader sense of social cohesion.

Perhaps, but what would we want in any policy to help heal the national divides? Here’s my list:

  • It could be readily understood
  • It could be easily seen as a policy for the entire society
  • It would have substantial impact
  • It should be possible to get there

It could well be that a proposal to make major changes to our tax system in the current political climate is political daydreaming. Still, it just might be that the first three are sufficiently powerful that it might not be impossible. Even if the effort failed, it might facilitate more focused discussions on what as a society we want for ourselves.

Can We Find Healing Power in Income Taxes? — Between Hell and High Water

Categories: Economic History

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