So, one thing that I’ve noticed lately is a relatively new set of arguments linking poverty to income inequality. Specifically, the argument that poverty is a serious problem and so, to solve it, we need to solve income inequality. Thus, we need to tax the 1% more and take their money so that incomes are more equal so that we can solve poverty. Lots of arguments in the media and in various places refer to the 1%, how much they own, and how we need to tax them in order to solve income inequality.
This sort of argument, and the shift in argument, interests me. If we want or need to raise taxes on the very rich in order to eliminate poverty, it would seem that the more effective argument would be to simply point out that we need more resources to help people in poverty, and that the very rich can afford to contribute more, and so we need to raise taxes on the very rich to get those resources. This argument has the benefit of being pretty much true and undeniable, and it doesn’t rely on any arguments around fairness or who should have what. This should be a simple argument to make, and one that should have traction with most people, and it’s hard to think of too many arguments against it. So why isn’t this argument being put out front and centre?
One reason that might be given is that this argument has been tried and that it hasn’t had much traction, and this argument seems to have more traction in our modern world. But I don’t quite buy that. I think, rather, that the shift in argument is an attempt to dodge one of the few — and probably the best — argument against the idea that we need to raise taxes on the very rich in order to solve the poverty problem, and one that strikes hard against things that liberals hold dear.
Think back to the U.S. government shutdown over the debt. Both sides were arguing that they needed to do something about the growing debt, and the fight was over how to do that. The Democrats insisted that taxes needed to be raised and that certain tax cuts and benefits needed to be clawed back. The Republicans countered that government spending had to be curtailed, and programs that they deemed at least not particularly useful needed to be ended. Even if at times they talked of compromise, neither side wanted to accept the solution that the other side was pushing for. The Democrats didn’t want to cut programs, and the Republicans didn’t want to raise taxes.
The biggest argument against the “We need to raise taxes to end poverty” is to argue that the poverty programs could be funded if the government used the money it already has efficiently, and cut programs that aren’t as important and divert the funding to that. Liberals often make this sort of argument when it comes to military spending, but given the perceived terrorist threat arguing for a huge cut in military spending is not likely to have a lot of traction among the average person right now. So since the only programs that the average person is likely to think can be cut and the funds diverted to fighting poverty are programs that liberals support, they don’t want to engage in a fight where that argument can be used against them. And so shifting the argument to one over income equality and using poverty as a justification for that works out better for them, getting them their tax increases without being as vulnerable to the arguments about government spending, because you are no longer talking about needing the money, but about fairness. And for those who really want income to be equal, ending poverty is a wonderful excuse to get what they really want.
While liberals often argue that conservatives rely on the view that the very rich deserve their wealth due to hard work, this new argument relies on liberals pushing the view that the very rich don’t deserve it: they got it through luck, or family connections, or that no one deserves to have that much wealth. If people thought that the rich really did deserve their wealth, then this argument fails, so it can only get off the ground if the rich are thought to be people unfairly hoarding wealth that they didn’t earn, leaving nothing for everyone else.
How well will this argument work? While this argument is getting a lot of play in the media and has been growing there ever since Occupy, I don’t see it as having a lot of traction overall. One of the common complaints I read on liberal sites every time conservatives gain politically — especially on U.S.-focused sites — is that the people are voting against their own interests when they do so, brainwashed by the very rich and their access to media, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think this is the result of the major flaws in the two arguments. In the old argument, it was trivially easy to see that the government was not efficient, and therefore was indeed wasting money. Also, a number of its programs didn’t seem necessary to the average person, and so it wasn’t unreasonable to argue that we shouldn’t raise taxes to generate more revenue without ensuring that the money will be spent on the things that it’s supposedly for. The new argument has to overcome the idea that most people don’t really care how much money other people have as long as they have enough; they might want to have what they have, but they generally accept that some may get more than others and that that isn’t unfair. So the only way for this new argument to have traction is to indeed push a politics of envy, encouraging people to look at what others have and insisting that they ought to have it. This isn’t a good attitude to encourage, but hiding it beneath a concern for others makes it more palatable … maybe.
Ultimately, the case has to be made for income equality itself for this to really work. But politics doesn’t require deep arguments in order to allow people to get into power and to be able to implement some of their preferred policies. How far this argument will go remains to be seen.