Three Bad Arguments With Surprising Staying Power

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

At the end of any year, it is tempting to try to find a grand theme to tie together the political and social events of the preceding twelve months. I might attempt to do that in future years, but today, I will instead engage in something much more modest. There are, as always, many seemingly indestructible bad arguments in the air regarding taxes and justice. Without claiming that these are the worst of those arguments, or even to try to set a hierarchy among them, I thought that I would briefly discuss three especially weak arguments that have shown impressive staying power.

-- "Why Don't Rich Progressives Just Give Their Money to the Government Voluntarily?"

The most recent version of this argument appeared in a fake news report, with an attractive young "journalist" interviewing some wealthy members of the "Patriotic Millionaires" group who had come to Washington to lobby for higher taxes on the rich. The format, "gotcha interviews" that attempt to follow the format of a bit on "The Daily Show," has now become familiar among a certain group of young conservatives, who have scored some inexplicable political points (the Shirley Sherrod firing, the de-funding of ACORN) by asking ridiculous questions of unsuspecting interviewees, and then editing the results to distort the answers.

In this case, bizarrely, the provocateurs apparently think that they do not even need to edit the interviews to make their point. They get a Patriotic Millionaire to say that the rich are under-taxed, they then produce a form from the Treasury Department that one can use to donate money to the federal government, and finally they ask the interviewee to donate some random amount of money. When the interviewee refuses, the interviewer considers it a big score. The millionaire must be a hypocrite or a liar, the implication goes, because he will not give money to the federal government in this way, even though he wants to force others to give more money to the federal government.

Along with many others, I have discussed the silliness of this line of attack ad nauseam (most recently, here and here). It is simply nonsense to suggest that a person must give money in the way that the interviewer demands, or be deemed a hypocrite -- especially when doing so would do nothing to solve the underlying problems that the Patriotic Millionaires are trying to help solve. It is like saying, "Hey doctor, you say you're against disease. Why don't you give me some of your bone marrow right now, to prove that you really care about fighting disease?"

As weak as that argument is, it just will not go away. One might be tempted to think that the argument's staying power is evidence of its appeal. Else, why would activists on the right stick with it? Maybe there is something to that, but the better explanation seems to be that this is now part of the echo chamber's catechism. The people who hate redistribution are sure that they have a great argument against wealthy progressives, so they just keep repeating themselves in a self-congratulatory cycle, while the rest of the world says, "Huh?" (See also: "Obama is a socialist.")

-- "The people who attack the rich are just doing it because they wish they were rich themselves."

The "politics of envy" argument has been around forever, it seems. Exactly two years ago tomorrow, I wrote the following in a post about taxing Wall Street bonuses: "I suppose that there are people who want to raise taxes on the rich because of jealousy, resentment, or whatever. I know that I am not one of them, but they might be out there. What is interesting, however, is that this idea that people are proposing taxes on the rich out of envy is so reminiscent of what mothers have been telling their children for centuries: 'Don't worry, Dear. The other kids are just jealous.' Like all ad hominem arguments, the point is to obscure the merits of the debate. Here, however, we have a line of attack from the most privileged people on earth saying that anyone who believes that their privileges are undeserved is merely a jealous loser. Believing that must surely make it easier to sleep at night."

Shockingly, those who oppose progressivity have ignored or forgotten my argument (!!), continuing to go back to this well. Just this week, one of the letters to the editor on the NYT op-ed page asserted as a matter of obvious fact that the Occupy Wall Streeters are simply angry that they are not rich. I now think my comments from 2009 were too tame. While I said then that there might be some progressives out there who are jealous of the rich, that seems an unnecessary concession. I do not know of anyone who has said anything remotely suggesting that their advocacy of progressive redistribution is based on personal disappointment.

And certainly the Occupy Wall Street protesters -- whom Fox News and its offshoots so gleefully mock for being weird, and not at all like the normal people who care about practical things -- are the last group on Earth to whom this line of attack could apply. Even those of us who are living middle-class lives of pleasant comfort, moreover, know when enough is enough. Enjoying not being poor does not equate with gnashing one's teeth over not being rich.

Yet the defenders of privilege are so enamored of this argument, so sure that their mothers were right, that they apparently cannot get past the idea that everyone is jealous of them. The problem is that, sometimes, mothers can be wrong. Sometimes, people hate you because you are doing something that you should not be doing. Criticizing rich people generally, and certainly criticizing the greed of that subset of rich people that perpetuates the worst excesses of modern American politics, is not evidence of jealousy. I can dislike what you do because you are wrong. And when I do, that is when I would least want to be like you.

-- "I earned my money, and no one has a right to take it away?"

I am no longer religious -- in fact, even as a minister's son, I was never particularly devout -- but I am constantly amazed at the hubris of people who claim to have made it all on their own. Whatever happened to, "There, but for the grace of God, go I"? Maureen Dowd's annual Christmas column this past Sunday, in which she discussed Charles Dickens's views about social injustice, nicely captured the important truth that we are all dominated by forces over which we have very little control. As important and admirable as it is to make the most of one's opportunities, those opportunities are still overwhelmingly matters of dumb luck.

Dowd writes: "Dickens was rescued from the warehouse and sent back to school when his father got out of prison and wangled a Navy pension. But that year drove home to him how frighteningly random fate can be." It is thus hardly breaking news that we are all the beneficiaries of luck. Stepping onto a sidewalk a split second too late to be hit by a speeding truck, getting into the university of one's choice because one had an especially good day when taking the SAT (or because one's parents gave a building to the old alma mater?), receiving a promotion because someone else had to leave the firm due to grave illness. There is no limit to how many ways that our lives could have been derailed.

We should not be surprised when people try to keep what they can. That they will try to do so, and that they will justify this in terms of righteousness and just desserts, should not prevent us from trying to make the world a little less harsh for those who were not the beneficiaries of such good luck.

As Dorf on Law approaches its sixth New Year's Day, I want to thank everyone for reading, and to wish you all happiness in the days to come.