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Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Levy on "Lucky Duckies"

Jacob Levy has an interesting New Republic column up asserting that the right's argument in favor of taxing the poor (raising taxes on those "luck duckies", as WSJ has put it, arousing the ire of Krugman, Tim Noah, et al) is not unique in American politics. In fact, he cites debates over school vouchers, Social Security and Charlie Rangel's proposal to re-institute the draft to discourage going to war as analogous cases:

"If we subject everyone to the same rules, institutions, or conditions, then there will be political demand to make them fair or otherwise tolerable. If we only subject some people to them, then some may be unfairly singled out or burdened; there will be opportunities to divide the citizenry, play the interests of some against those of others, and to undermine the overall desirable outcome. The only detail that changes from argument to argument is the class to which one tries to yoke people--the class of taxpayers, the class of potential soldiers, the class of recipients of government checks, etc."

And this is a normal pattern, writes Levy:

"To sometimes be yoked together under a shared institution in order to preserve its viability is the universal price of political life. To try to redraw the class boundaries, to keep people linked to one sense of shared belonging rather than another, or to argue that this or that shared institution really isn't necessary or desirable--this is the basic stuff of politics. It should always be done with a bit of bad conscience, and without denying the element of exploitation. But no one should pretend to be surprised that it's being done at all."

I agree with Levy that the analogies are valid, but I still have a visceral negative reaction to the soak-the-poor argument because it seems so damn callous. Rangel knew the draft would never be reinstated--he just wanted to draw attention to the fact that none of our leaders' kids were serving. And I don't see denying a rich person a higher return on retirement assets as quite so onerous as increasing the tax burden on someone struggling to get by to begin with.

Basically what I'm getting at is that the "lucky duckies" outcry is not based on any high-falutin political philosophy. It's based on compassion for the poor.