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Opinion

Obama, Joe the plumber, and the gospel of envy

A call to 'spread the wealth' around is an old – and dangerous – theme.

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The modern income tax begins with the Progressive era in American politics. In an influential 1889 article titled "The Owners of the United States," crusading attorney Thomas Shearman argued that the lion's share of the country's wealth was in a limited number of hands. If an income tax were not adopted, he warned, within 30 years "the United States of America will be substantially owned" by fewer than 50,000 people.

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This marked the beginning of a never-ending campaign. Many activists since have characterized America as a permanent plutocracy. And their prescription has generally been more and higher taxes.

Shearman's advocacy of an income tax found a receptive audience in populist politician William Jennings Bryan. Exploiting the dire conditions created by the depression of 1893, Bryan promoted the adoption of an income tax.

His proposal succeeded when Congress passed a 2 percent flat tax on incomes over $4,000 in 1894. The following year, however, the Supreme Court held the tax to be unconstitutional.

In response, Progressives condemned the Constitution as an instrument crafted by the rich to protect their selfish interests (J. Allen Smith), and a document rendered obsolete by intellectual progress in the century since its drafting (Woodrow Wilson).

Frenzied attacks on "the rich" and "the wealthy" culminated in the ratification of the 16th Amendment in 1913, authorizing federal taxation of income from all sources without limit. The same year, historian Charles Beard published "An Economic Interpretation of the United States Constitution." This book – later debunked – suggested that the Constitution was the handiwork of a propertied elite serving its own interests. Such sentiment has poisoned American political thought ever since.

So why hasn't the majority in America helped itself to more of the minority's wealth, as Aristotle and our Founders feared? Partly because the protections for individual property erected by the Founders have worked. Partly, too, because many Americans' political convictions are (thankfully) based on principle rather than immediate economic self-interest. And partly because the fraction of Americans who think of themselves as rich, or likely to become rich in the future, is quite large, undercutting the incentive for bashing the rich.

Obama's appeal for higher taxes to "spread the wealth around" nevertheless harks back to an old theme in political philosophy and American politics. You can believe in it, but it's not exactly change, and it is more to be worried about than hoped for.

Scott W. Johnson is an attorney. This text was adapted from his post at powerlineblog.com, and it includes portions that were previously published elsewhere.

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