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February 22, 2008

A CLARIFICATION The debate over whether people want higher taxes on themselves is, I think, slipping back and forth between two debates: a normative and a positive one. I started out with a positive claim:

What most of us are really in favor of is higher taxes on other people. If we wanted higher taxes on ourselves, we'd give the money to charity.

This is simply observationally true. People do not voluntarily give money to the government; polls show that most people support raising taxes on only a small fraction of the electorate. (Yes, yes, they're rich. Okay, and? The observation still holds: most people want other peoples' taxes raised, not their own. Whether this desire is justified is irrelevant.)

Henry Farrell, and others, stepped in to complain that I, like, totally didn't understand that people behave different collectively than individually. This does not, in fact, negate my point; it supports it. Most people are not concerned with remedying the injustice of their own high income; they want large public goods that can only be secured by taking a lot of money from other people. They are willing to kick in their own money if they have to in order to secure the coalition, or because they think this is fair. But they are primarily concerned not with their own contribution, but with that of others. This will not be a surprising observation for anyone who has ever lived in a group house.

This does, however, raise an interesting normative point, into which I have now been sidetracked without quite noticing: should you, if you think that your taxes are too low, voluntarily give that money to the government? The answer, I think, is yes, for reasons that I've laid out in previous posts. But that is separate from the positive observation I stand by: people are more interested in levying taxes on others than they are in paying taxes themselves.

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