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Is There An Ethical Level Of Taxation?

This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the tensions between, coalitions within, and futures of conservatism and libertarianism. We are looking at ideas that divide conservatives and libertarians, as well as ideas that bring them together. Arthur Laffer is an economist of some fame among conservatives since his days in the Reagan administration. His namesake theory states that there is an optimum tax rate for government revenues before the tax burden starts hurting the economy and government revenues fall. He first illustrated this (admittedly) not totally original idea on a dinner napkin, looking something like this: Laffer Curve This “Laffer Curve” has become a staple of conservative economics, because, hey, Reagan’s economics guy came up with it. Well, I have a confession. While it may be theoretically and mathematically accurate, I don’t like it. Meant with no animosity or disrespect to Mr. Laffer, I honestly don’t like what it has done to the conversation about taxation. The Laffer Curve and subsequent renditions have ceded the verbiage of the tax debate to the Keynesians. It frames the conversation in terms of maximizing revenue for the government as if that was taken for granted as the main goal of tax policy. But we are conservatives and libertarians! We read people like F.A. Hayek and Frédéric Bastiat, and we believe that the language of the debate should be in terms of plunder. Not revenue. Conservatives and libertarians agree that there is a minimal level of government operations required for a properly ordered society, though we may disagree on what that level is. We believe that any action of the government over and above their proper operations is a measure of tyranny. And any penny of taxation taken from citizens above the minimum level of revenue required for the government to conduct its proper operations is theft. So why is it that when so-called “conservatives” hailing from the Republican Party enter the debate to defend President Bush’s tax cuts or to criticize President Obama’s fair-share “Buffet Rule,” they resort to the argument that higher taxation won’t increase government revenue? They forgo the very real moral superiority of the argument that the government balance sheet is too big, as if they have already lost that debate. Our discussion about taxation should not center around the question of what would maximize revenue for the government, but what would minimize it. We should ask: “Is there an ethical level of taxation?” Instead we, and our conservative leaders, ask how much can we take. Maybe this what Bastiat meant in “The Law,” when he said, “This is the origin of plunder.” If you have a comment about this article or a question for this column, leave a comment below. Also send your comments and questions to Values & Capitalism or me, Jacqueline Otto, on Twitter.