At heart many political positions are like religious beliefs. The debate about taxes has left the realm of the reasonable and has turned into theology. On the one hand, ultra-conservatives argue that taxes are bad and a burden that slows up economic growth. On the other hand, ultra liberals believe taxes are a way of equalizing resources for all people and that tax-funded government programs help in that process.
There’s no point in arguing with someone who holds anti-tax, anti-government beliefs. Despite 30 years of supply-side economics or trickle-down economics or voodoo economics, there’s no basis for the claim that reducing taxes boosts the economy. This is a matter of faith to them, much like a faith in heaven or hell -- things many cannot see, but devoutly believe.
On the flip side, those who believe that extensive government programs designed to help lift people out of poverty don’t have the compelling proof they need to lock down the argument. At the extreme, the belief that tax-funded services are absolutely the way to go also hold these convictions with religious fervor, despite a paucity of proof.
When Gov. Rick Perry of Texas says that state will not expand health care and will not participate in those elements of the Affordable Care Act because they are an infringement on the great state of Texas’ rights, we’re not talking about a centrist analysis of the situation; we’re talking about a belief that can’t be argued. His position might change because of in-state politics, advocacy by more moderate forces and other considerations, but it doesn’t mean his belief will change.
On the other hand, the position that "health care is a human right" is also a statement of belief, not of fact. Human rights are defined by humans -- the U.S. Constitution, state constitutions, the UN’s declaration of human rights are examples. When a majority of those making the decisions have officially endorsed that something is a human right, it’s a human right for as long as they make the decisions.
I believe, and I stress the word believe, that we’re all better off when people are healthy, get enough food, are safe, have decent housing commensurate with incomes, and receive an education through public taxes. Some of these items are rights included in the Vermont Constitution. Others are reflected in the laws our state and nation have established for public safety and public health.
I don’t think the people of this nation will, at least in my lifetime, support the kind of progressive tax rate we had in the 1930s to 1960s. The people in our country have, as a whole, a core belief that individuals should be able to build wealth unfettered by taxes that put a cap on that wealth. As a nation, we also believe they may use that wealth as they see fit. While Americans are very generous, they don’t want to be forced to pay high taxes for social benefits.
It’s also becoming clear that most Americans don’t see the danger of a disproportionately small number of citizens owning a huge percentage of our national wealth. We’ve never had true class warfare in our nation (nothing like the French or Russian Revolutions). We’ve had a few skirmishes over the years, but most of the discussions about taxation and government programs have boiled down to policy and budgeting rather than class antagonism.
I wish I understood these national attitudes better, but then it’s a matter of faith, not understanding.
Charles R. Putney is a consultant to nonprofit organizations. He lives in Bennington.