The necessity for citizens to be equal before the law is a concept most often emphasized within the framework of the criminal justice system: Americans clamor, and rightly so, with particular vigor for the ability of each individual to receive a fair and impartial trial, to be judged by the same standard as all others accused of a similar crime.
This demand for parity, however, is often absent from debates surrounding the merits of various legislative initiatives, an unfortunate oversight which has resulted in the burgeoning of a political culture that is alarmingly cavalier towards individual rights.
Poorly conceived legislation has the ability to degrade personal freedom which, once lost, cannot be recovered. The power differential between the people and the government, though necessary for the development of free nations, exclusively favors the latter. It is for this reason the complex federal system, which dissipates power not only between separate and coequal branches of power, but within them as well, exists. Unfortunately for the Founders, however, there is no structural mechanism which can check the capriciousness of human will, which is all too given to rejecting staunch adherence to rigid principles—a course of action crucial to long term success—and instead indulging the potent sense of emotional gratification that accompanies short-term victories.
As Congress turns its attention to the long-talked-up issue of tax reform, the seduction of this latter form of conduct is all too evident. Even those who have positioned themselves Don Quixote-like as the last champion of individual rights see tax revenue as a resource which can be exploited for gain. And while it is easy to dismiss money as an elitist interest, it is ultimately impossible to separate wealth from those who hold it. The exploitation of wealth as a public resource inevitably leads to the abuse of citizens’ rights on the same grounds.
A recent Politico article highlighted this in quoting Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), chairman of the supposedly ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus. The Congressman addressed the possibility that Republicans might leave the tax rate for those earners who fall into the highest bracket untouched, saying:
“There certainly is a political argument to leave the 39.6 percent tax bracket there if nothing more than to address the perception that we would be cutting taxes on the wealthy and increasing it on those middle-income wage earners.”
Meadows’ language is frightening in its relativism. There’s an old adage in politics which holds that perception is reality as individual viewpoints, regardless of whether they are factually right or wrong, are sacrosanct in a democracy. But this is not a sanction on subjective standards in law-making, or at least it shouldn’t be.
Again, government’s first prerogative is to protect individual rights, which are egalitarian; this grounds policy in much more objective standards. For instance, in regard to the tax debate, the first question legislators should ask themselves is whether new law protects individual rights; the second question it should ask is whether citizens are treated equally by new regulations.
Instead, what Meadows’ statement reveals is a concern, not with citizens—except to the end they can be exploited for gain by government—but with the needs of politicians. Meadows is clearly willing to sacrifice the rights of high-income earners to their property for, what exactly? Political popularity? He has no right to make this judgment; the federal system is designed so that it is government action which is restrained, not the other way around. Citizens’ interests are supreme and it is government’s duty to serve these, not the other way around.
One might counter this by claiming that the class-warfare lens which has come to color debates over tax policy is concerned with the exigent needs of those who are marginalized by society because they do not have the resources others possess and use to their advantage. There is truth to this; however, the question of the parity of rights still remains. Excess or deficiency in property are not a condition which affects the civil liberties of an individual; these are absolutes, which belong to each person as a condition of their existence. They cannot be altered by anything so arbitrary as material conditions.
The operative question here is: do individuals have a right to what they earn? Is your wealth—a form of property—ultimately at your discretion to dispose of as you see fit? The current attitude of the government, as embodied by Meadows, suggests the answer to these questions is no. It is Congress’ discretion that is the sole arbiter of appropriateness.
It is clear that compelling political interests—namely those of politicians to prosper by pandering to one interest group over another—sway public policy. It is impossible for justice to be done in such a system because one standard is applied to privileged groups and another is applied to those from whom less can be gained. What’s more, this is a system whereby government’s interests—not citizens’—is protected. Such blatant favoritism is tempting to accept for those who benefit by its bias, but what happens when middle-income earners become prosperous? Suddenly, their interests are less worthy of consideration by government actors. They are not protected. Ultimately, this approach to policy is despotic; it is not compassion that drives government to champion the marginalized, but the political boons they receive in return for doing so.
Also published on Medium.