“Politics,” as my old professor used to remind us political science majors frequently, “is the art of compromise.” Perhaps the reason for the ugly stalemate in Washington that has the entire world economic community on edge is that many of the new crop of Capitol Hill inmates are not politicians, but ideologues. Guided by the absolutism of unelected, self-appointed gurus such as Grover Norquist or Rupert Murdoch, the Tea Party and their lackeys are not putting principle ahead of policy. They are sacrificing effective government on the altar of dogma. And dogma in this case that is unsound and unreasonable.
From a European perspective, where economists and ordinary citizens are equally bewildered by the posturing in Washington, taxation is rightly seen as the normal way in which government raises the revenue needed for providing the care and security of the citizens who have elected men and women of experience and insight to do just that. When a government is appointed or seized by special interests, whether giant corporations, the military, or single-party despots, the welfare of the people, especially the poor, powerless, and vulnerable, is easily subordinated to the advantage of those in power.
Progressive taxation was devised over centuries of effort to render the necessity as fair-handed as possible, so that the poor and the middle class are not burdened more severely than the rich, well-born, and able. In the bad moments, there was Robin Hood — at least in theory. (Have you ever wondered why the legend of Robin Hood has been perennially popular?) In the truly awful moments there were tax revolts that in the Middle Ages usually ended in massacres. The revolts and their inevitable suppression arose from the increased extortion of ever-decreasing resources from the middle classes and peasantry to finance incessant and expensive wars, such as the bloody Hundred Years War that brought France and England to the edge of bankruptcy in the 14th century.
Should anyone need a more recent example, one need only ask how trillion-dollar wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could not have led to the current melt-down? And has anyone asked lately where all the money went?
For all that, taxes remain necessary and when administered rightly, equitable. When required, increase in taxation should be borne equitably as well. And there lies the rub.
Absolutism in politics is as dangerous as it is anywhere else — religion, art, or science. Or for that matter, education and family life as well. The path may seem clean and smooth, but in fact it’s a slippery slope that leads to perdition — the Spanish Inquisition, Auschwitz, blood purges, “Soviet biology,” Joe McCarthy, Timothy McVeigh, and now, Anders Behring Breivik. Time to reset….