Treating Successful Taxpayers Like Piñatas

New data from the Internal Revenue Service confirm that the so-called rich are paying a huge share of the tax burden. As Richard Rahn explains in the Washington Times, “The IRS just released the numbers for 2005, and they show the top 1 percent of taxpayers paid almost 40 percent of the nation’s total income tax bill, and that the top 5 percent paid 60 percent of the taxes.” This is normally considered an economic issue since people on the left argue that higher tax rates on the rich are a never-ending source of money for politicians, while people on the right explain that low tax rates encourage productive behavior and boost growth. But the disproportionate tax burden on successful taxpayers, combined with the fact that a huge share of the population does not pay any income tax, also is a moral or philosophical issue. As Walter Williams writes:

The fact that there are so many American earners who have little or no financial stake in our country poses a serious political problem. The Tax Foundation estimates that…”When all of the dependents of these income-producing households are counted, there are roughly 122 million Americans – 44 percent of the U.S. population – who are outside of the federal income tax system.” These people represent a natural constituency for big-spending politicians. In other words, if you have little or no financial stake in America, what do you care about the cost of massive federal spending programs?

Jonah Goldberg also is concerned about this development. In his Townhall.com column, he explicitly warns that the nation’s social capital will be eroded if a large share of the population learn that the tax system is nothing more than a way to confiscate other people’s money:

…our politics seem to be suffering from a “rich people curse.” We treat the rich like a constantly regenerating pinata, as if they will never change their behavior no matter how many times they get whacked by taxes. And we think everyone can live well off the treats that will fall to the ground forever. … Democrats keep telling the bottom 95 percent of taxpayers that
America’s problems would be solved if only the rich people would pay “their fair share” of income taxes. Not only is this patently untrue and a siren song toward a welfare state, it amounts to covetousness as fiscal policy. … it’s unhealthy for a democracy when the majority of citizens don’t see government as a service they’re reluctantly paying for but as an extortionist that cuts them in for a share of the loot.

These concerns may be somewhat overstated because there is still considerable income mobility in the United States, so many people who today are not paying tax presumably envision that they will be swept in the tax net in the future. But there probably is a tipping point, a level of taxation and redistribution that results in a permanent economic sclerosis. Indeed, some speculate that nations such as Italy are now incapable of reform because the electorate is dominated by people who have concluded that they have a right to live off the income of others.