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The Truth About Taxes, or, the Work of 1000 Leeches

“Tax policy” is one of those phrases that has a curiously amphibious effect. On the one hand, for most red-blooded individuals it cannot but act as a soporific: “Ah, tax policy, eh? Pardon me while I get the snifter refilled.”

On the other hand: for anyone in whom the instinct for self-preservation is still intact, the phrase must also act as an existential tocsin, eliciting for many something akin to the storied “fight or flight” response. In the age of Obama, “tax policy” is both a weapon and an excuse: a weapon in the war to create a more egalitarian -- i.e., more impoverished and centrally regulated -- society; an excuse to undertake all sorts of policy experiments in order to bring about this “People’s Republic” of utopia.

One of the most poisonous arrows in the quiver of the Obamacrats’ armory is the word “fairness.”

Steve Moore, in his brilliant new book Who's the Fairest of Them All? The Truth about Opportunity, Taxes, and Wealth in America, says everything that needs to be said about the dishonest deployment of “fairness” by eager redistributionists who think political leadership means punishing success. And Cliff Asness, writing for the American Enterprise Institute’s online magazine The American, has weighed in to explain precisely what the Obama administration’s redistributionist campaign will mean for the rest of us. “The rest of us” -- the 98 percent of those who will be affected by the new tax policies. “We Are the 98 Percent,” as Asness puts it in his title.

Read his column. It’s not just that Asness understands “the current tax rates cannot support the promises made to middle-class Americans.” Nor is it just that “you cannot pay for the Life of Julia, or any vision of a cradle-to-grave welfare state, without massive and increasingly regressive middle-class taxes.” All that is true, and Asness is right to remind us of it. At the center of the debate, however, is something that partisans of both sides tend to neglect when they do not seek actively to conceal it. Namely, that behind the back-and-forth about taxes is a deep question about who we are, about what our values are as political beings.

“The central issue of our time,” as Asness puts it, “is the debate over the size and scope of government.” That is to say, it is a debate over the size and scope of individual freedom, which is residuum left over after government has exercised its prerogatives.

Traditionally, what set America apart from the rest of the world on such issues was its explicit commitment to limited government. The powers vested by the Constitution in the federal government, wrote James Madison in The Federalist, are “few and defined,” concerned mostly with “external objects” like national security and foreign commerce, while those accorded to the individual states are “numerous and indefinite,” encompassing “all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.”