Devone Boggan’s opinion piece in the New York Times, which discusses a gun violence reduction program where counselors work with & pay at-risk young people to help them stay out of trouble, is lovely. Well worth reading, especially to get a sense of the numbers: these young men are being given such small amounts of money, little was spent to coach and mentor them, and the city of Richmond, CA (where the initiative is based) has accrued huge savings. Huge monetary savings — there’s also that trifling side benefit of people feeling more safe and dudes not being dead.
What was interesting for me, though, was seeing Boggan’s piece (really, go read it!) juxtaposed with Alan Feuer’s article on billionaires decrying wealth inequality, also in this week’s Sunday Review section. Because in conjunction the two pieces convey what I feel is the most compelling philosophical rationale for progressive taxation. Which I believe we sorely need more of in this country.
Here’s the super-brief version of the argument: people should pay for governance in proportion to what they would lose if there were no governance.
(Maybe this sounds silly when stated so bluntly. In some ways reminiscent of the definition of electrostatic potential, which is the work done to drag an imaginary test charge to any location from infinitely far away, or John Rawls’s idea that our political system should seem acceptable to a gathering of brilliant, bodiless, ignorant individuals. But, just hold on! I promise this won’t be so abstract)
If we consider impoverished, disenfranchised young people: their lives might well improve if we all woke up to anarchy tomorrow. If our current system has proffered no employment, no wealth, crowded housing, toxic environs, crumbling infrastructure, brutal dehumanizing interactions with the police and other authority figures, they might be better off in a Leviathan-esque world. Their odds would be no worse than anybody else’s. As opposed to now; many brilliant individuals, unlucky enough to be born where and when they were, hardly have a chance. So I think it would be perfectly reasonable for their tax rate to be negative. It would be fair for them to be compensated for the fact that our current system makes their lives crummy.
And for people who amass fortunes by virtue of our government’s structure and opportunities, and who rely on the state to protect that fortune… they would lose dearly if we woke up to chaos instead of our current system. They should pay a high percentage of the value of the income & capital that our government makes possible for them to keep.
Which is darkly alluded to in Feuer’s article. To quote:
In March, for instance, Paul Tudor Jones II, the private equity investor, gave a TED talk in which he proclaimed that the divide between the top 1 percent in the United States and the remainder of the country “cannot and will not persist.” Mr. Jones, who is thought to be worth nearly $5 billion, added that such divides have historically been resolved in one of three ways: taxes, wars, or revolution.