Obama, Joe the plumber, and the gospel of envy
A call to 'spread the wealth' around is an old – and dangerous – theme.
When Barack Obama responded to the Ohio plumber who didn't want his taxes raised by saying that he wanted to "spread the wealth around," I wanted to tell the Illinois senator to spread his own wealth around.Skip to next paragraph
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Senator Obama, in a rare moment of candor, all but told "Joe the plumber" that his wealth should be seized in the name of equity. Their personal encounter this past Sunday played out one of the old themes of democratic politics: the appeal to the many to take from the few. It's traditionally an easy sell in democratic regimes.
Despite Obama's implication to the contrary, however, it doesn't represent much in the way of change.
The personal income tax, the federal government's main source of revenue, is collected overwhelmingly from a relative handful of Americans. Indeed, the most recent IRS data shows that the top 1 percent of filers paid nearly 40 percent of all income taxes. That means the top 1 percent paid about the same as the bottom 95 percent, according to the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan research group. The bottom 50 percent paid just 3 percent.
Given that poorer citizens always outnumber the rich, political philosophers have long worried that government based on majority rule could lead to organized theft from the wealthy by the democratic masses. "If the majority distributes among itself the things of a minority, it is evident that it will destroy the city," Aristotle warned.
The Founders of the United States shared Aristotle's worry. Up through their time, history had shown all known democracies to be, as James Madison put it, "incompatible with personal security or the rights of property." Madison and others therefore made it a "first object of government" to protect personal property from unjust confiscation.
Given that one of the causes of the American Revolution was an unjust tax, the Founders understood very well that taxation could become a way for one group to prey on another. So while the Constitution empowered the federal government to levy taxes, it limited this power mostly to indirect taxes such as tariffs, duties, and excise taxes. For much of American history, the federal government subsisted solely on those fees.
Until the Civil War, the idea of a tax on individual incomes would have seemed preposterous to most Americans. Only as an emergency wartime measure did Congress adopt an income tax in the 1860s, and the measure was allowed to lapse with little fanfare in 1872.