Do today’s economic conservatives actually want to live in a functional society, or are they striving for an economy that runs on Monopoly Money?
NPR’s Planet Money recently did a fun segment on the classic board game and its relationship to actual economics, featuring commentary from a couple of actual economists. Russell Roberts, an economist at the notoriously conservative George Mason University, argued that Monopoly could be improved with a new tax feature. If successful Monopoly players had to transfer some of their wealth to their less-prosperous competitors, Roberts said we could turn children off to the evils of progressive taxation. Here’s the money quote: “You could get kids to resent taxes at an even earlier age.”
James Kwak does a nice job emphasizing that taxes actually do something useful for society, but I think Roberts’ point creates a deeper and more obvious dilemma. Roberts is arguing that the basic goals of real, living human beings are essentially the same as those of a Monopoly player. A Monopoly player wins by pushing everyone else into total poverty in order to control all resources and establish complete economic domination over his peers. People in the real world who are fueled by such motivations are not ordinary, model citizens—they are completely insane. Life is not a quest to get our hands on as much stuff as we can so our neighbors don’t get to it first. A society that allows a few people to establish supreme economic dominion over all others is not a society at all—it’s just a bunch of nasty brutes trying to destroy each other.
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The view Roberts expresses here is so crazy that he himself has quickly disavowed it. But his walk-back is still more interesting than his initial commitment to anarchic brutality. Roberts repeats that he’s against taxes, but argues that he’s only against taxes that redistribute wealth in the wrong direction. Here’s his core argument:
I hadn’t set up my tax lesson as an indictment of redistributive taxation but as an indictment of the way the tax system purports to fund public goods but often just redistributes money to special interest groups (the elderly, (rich or poor), Wall Street execs (really rich) and so on.
The rich, in Roberts’ view, should pay taxes to ensure that social services exist for the poor. But the poor shouldn’t be subsidizing the lifestyles of the wealthy. If we ended policies that redistributed wealth up the income ladder, the tax burden for everyone, Roberts argues, would be much lower.
This is an empirical question, not a philosophical one. Roberts is here agreeing with the most basic, fundamental tenet of progressive thought: Society ought to take care of its least fortunate members, and those with the greatest financial wherewithal should bear the greatest share of that cost.
That view is radically different the anti-tax extremism voiced by today’s political right. In the waning days of John McCain’s presidential run, for instance, his campaign criticized Barack Obama as a “redistributionist”—someone who wanted to tax rich people in order to establish social services helping the poor.
Progressive taxation was soon labeled “socialism,” and the frame has only grown more absurd over the past two years. Fox News commentators are now been eager to label anyone interested in repealing the Bush tax cuts for the rich as a “socialist.”
This zealotry is a very recent phenomenon. In fact, the idea that rich people should bear a greater portion of the tax burden was first implemented over a century ago by a Republican president—Theodore Roosevelt.
Most progressives would be more than happy to engage Roberts in a serious discussion of what tax policies funnel money from the poor to the rich, and to figure out ways to make the tax code could function more efficiently and effectively. But that’s not the discussion that the contemporary political right wants to have. Instead, the right is fueling a bizarre ideological war on taxation itself, and progressive taxation in particular. In the debate over the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, in fact, both the right-wing punditry and the mainstream Republican Party are openly endorsing government handouts for the wealthy.
The real world doesn’t run on Monopoly money. But if today’s right-wingers had their way, it would.