Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Save the Rich!

Over at Bloomberg, we get the headline "Wealthy New Yorkers Call De Blasio's Tax Plan Offensive". Apparently, in the New York mayoral race, Bill de Blasio has proposed raising the taxes of individuals making over $500,000 to help pay for social programs for those less well off. Surprising absolutely no one, many wealthy people in the city are not happy with this idea.

Matt Yglesias picks out some choice quotes, and he suggests that these affluent individuals would have been happier in a society in which, before taxes, incomes were more equal across the board. Yglesias uses Maslow's hierarchy of needs to try to explain why this would be the case.

From my view, however, I think we'll get more mileage out of Hegel than Maslow on this front. These problems are classic instantiations of Hegel's famous master-slave dialectic.

Essentially, the point is that in a master-slave (or oppressor-oppressed, exploiter-exploited) relationship, neither one can truly be free. As social beings, we see ourselves through the eyes of others, and even the master cannot be free from the slave if they cannot see each other as equals. Rich people are happy to be rich, of course, but when they are confronted with the idea that they might not deserve their riches, or that others might need them more, they get a glimpse into how they are perceived by those in poverty.

So when de Blasio (surely not impoverished himself) proposes that larger tax burdens should fall on the rich, they are made deeply uncomfortable. They take this to mean that they don't deserve what they've earned, and that there is something wrong with them having so much. In self-defense, as many of us are inclined to do when we are face with moral criticism, they say the suggestion that they pay more taxes is offensive.

There is a simpler explanation, which goes like this. Rich people are privileged. Someone is threatening to take away their privilege, so they come up with whatever excuse possible to maintain their privilege.

Certainly, there is some truth to that. But as Yglesias suggested and I agree, these people would probably be happier in a more equal society. It's the discomfort that comes from the master-slave dialectic that is especially disturbing to them, not the thought that they might have a somewhat less massive sum of money. I think equality is a deeply held value for most of us, whether or not we are actively fighting for it.

I find this somewhat discouraging, though, because it suggests that we might not be able to just tax our way to equality. Perhaps the wealthiest will always resist in this way, making equality-producing tax schemes unsustainable. If this were the case, we would need to hope for a much more fundamental kind of societal shift.

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