“Sadists who were trying to be nice”: that’s George Will’s characterization of the folks who devised the current tax system. “Every wrinkle in the code was put there to benefit this or that interest,” Will notes: that’s the “trying to be nice” part. But “since the 1986 tax simplification, the code has been recomplicated more than 14,000 times — more than once a day.” The result? A painful, byzantine code that puts the whole metabolism of taxation beyond the ken of laymen.
As a citizen, I feel I should be conversant with the rudiments of the tax system. But time is precious. I do not have scores of hours to devote to filling out tax forms. So I do what many people do. Every year, I repair to my accountant who produces an impressively thick document full of complicated depreciation schedules, etc. I haven’t the foggiest idea what it’s all about, but I reckon it must be valuable since after handing me this opus he also send me a hefty bill. Why should this be? Why not follow Will’s advice? Under his scheme, “Masochists would be permitted to continue paying income taxes under the current system.” I might go further an denominate all Democrats honorary masochists. But that is a detail. The meat of his proposal is this:
Others could use a radically simplified code, filing a form that fits on a postcard. It would have just two rates: 10 percent on incomes up to $100,000 for joint filers and $50,000 for single filers; 25 percent on higher incomes. There would be no deductions, credits or exclusions, other than the health care tax credit [“$2,300 for individuals, $5,700 for families”].
Will has a few other ideas. After simplifying the income tax code, he suggests we go on to
eliminate taxes on interest, capital gains, dividends and death. The corporate income tax, the world’s second highest, would be replaced by an 8.5 percent business consumption tax. Because this would be about half the average tax burden that other nations place on corporations, U.S. companies would instantly become more competitive — and more able and eager to hire.
What’s not to like? Well, how do you spell “vested interests”? What do you know about perpetuating dependency under a banner called “Compassion”?
This is where Will’s arresting notion of “sadists who were trying to be nice” comes in again. The sadists in question are not only the creatures who devised the tax code. They are also the liberals who believe they have a monopoly on virtue. The people look upon their fellow man as an opportunity for moral calisthenics. They are “trying to be nice.” They want to boost us all up to what they perceive as their own level of moral excellence on issues from race and education to international relations and “the environment.” (It is curious, isn’t it, how “the environment” has become a repository for moral aspiration. At what other period could Al Gore, apostle of global warming, have garnered serious attention?)
“Sadists trying to be nice.” They are all around us. They want to “save the planet,” so they outlaw incandescent lightbulbs. They want to help the poor, so they devise government systems whose effect is to keep the poor in perpetual dependence. They want to “spread the wealth around,” so they impose ruinous taxes on those who produce wealth, thus assuring that there is less wealth to spread around.
And so on. You can’t understand what has come to be called liberalism (a linguistic oddity, since it is so markedly illiberal) without understanding that at its core lies an unquenchable benevolence fired by unsurpassable presumption. It is their union, benevolence and presumption, that makes such a toxic cocktail and leads to the sadism Will descries in the tax code. It is part of what James Piereson, in a memorable essay for The Weekly Standard, called “punitive liberalism.” “From the time of John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 to Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976,” Piereson writes,
the Democratic party was gradually taken over by a bizarre doctrine that might be called Punitive Liberalism. According to this doctrine, America had been responsible for numerous crimes and misdeeds through its history for which it deserved punishment and chastisement. White Americans had enslaved blacks and committed genocide against Native Americans. They had oppressed women and tyrannized minority groups, such as the Japanese who had been interned in camps during World War II. They had been harsh and unfeeling toward the poor. By our greed, we had despoiled the environment and were consuming a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth and resources. We had coddled dictators abroad and violated human rights out of our irrational fear of communism.
As I noted in an earlier PJM column, Piereson’s great insight is to stress the punitive, the chastising side of this orgy of guilt. Liberals like President Obama come telling us they are making a better world; they omit to mention that what they mean by “a better world” is a world that is distinctly worse for certain groups, in particular groups that liberals decided had hitherto been unfairly privileged. “The punitive aspects of this doctrine,” Piereson writes,
were made especially plain in debates over the liberals’ favored policies. If one asked whether it was really fair to impose employment quotas for women and minorities, one often heard the answer, “White men imposed quotas on us, and now we’re going to do the same to them!” Was busing of school children really an effective means of improving educational opportunities for blacks? A parallel answer was often given: “Whites bused blacks to enforce segregation, and now they deserve to get a taste of their own medicine!” Do we really strengthen our own security by undercutting allied governments in the name of human rights, particularly when they are replaced by openly hostile regimes (as in Iran and Nicaragua)? “This”–the answer was–“is the price we have to pay for coddling dictators.” And so it went. Whenever the arguments were pressed, one discovered a punitive motive behind most of their policies.
It was, as Piereson notes, one of Ronald Reagan’s great achievements to overcome, at least temporarily, the emotional mandate of punitive liberalism. Piereson quotes from Reagan’s speech at the Republican Convention of 1980: “My fellow citizens,” Reagan said, “I utterly reject that view. The American people, the most generous on earth, who created the highest standard of living, are not going to accept the notion that we can only make a better world for others by moving backwards ourselves.” What a breath of fresh air, especially after four years of Jimmy “Mr. Malaise” Carter!
The question that confronts us now is what reservoirs of confidence we still can draw upon. Clearly, Reagan did not vanquish punitive liberalism, he merely rebuffed it momentarily. Punitive Liberalism is alive and well in the Democratic Party, at The New York Times, in our courts and universities. Sadists trying to be nice. What would really be nice is if another Ronald Reagan were to appear and remind us that we cannot move forward by moving backwards.