Friday, August 12, 2005

The Battle's Already Joined, So Where Are Your Arms?

Glancing over the shoulder of the passenger ahead of me as we flew westward across the Atlantic yesterday, I saw something disturbing. He was looking over USA Today's bestseller list, and my blood curdled a little as my eyes focused on #3, a new entry for this week: Neal Boortz and John Linder's FairTax Book. Now ordinarily I probably wouldn't have thought much of it, but over my vacation I just happened to have finished reading Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro's Death By a Thousand Cuts, which in its final chapter predicts the preeminence of income tax repeal on the conservative agenda. As of right now, Amazon ranks FairTax at #4 in sales, a development that caught me off guard even considering that I'd been emphatically apprised of it only days earlier.

Maybe it's Boortz's legions of right-wing radio fans driving the sales surge, or perhaps the shipments are moving disproportionately to Representative Linder's Georgia district, but it would be foolhardy to assume so. After all, as Graetz and Shapiro remind us, liberals took a similarly cavalier attitude toward estate tax repeal in the early '90s, which gave conservative repeal advocates a rhetorical advantage that they colorfully dub "pushing against an empty door." I even find myself tempted to counter Boortz and Linder's seemingly quixotic quest to take down the income tax with nothing more than tossed-off derision, but right-wing success against the estate tax shows that not taking them seriously may have dire consequences for the nation.

FairTax's 208 pages undoubtedly lay out an elaborate set of arguments as to why we should scrap the IRS and adopt a completely voluntary tax scheme, but the main thesis of DBATC suggests that the finer points may count for less than broad moral arguments that can easily be summarized in memorable sound bites such as "double taxation" and "we shouldn't be punishing the best people." One of the few posts in the liberal blogosphere I found on The FairTax Book (by no more than a humble TPMCafe reader) only mentions the issue very briefly, and the comment thread is littered with all manner of long-winded, esoteric, 'numerically supported' arguments pro and con. I'm going to put this simply, so that all you libs and cons get it: You're wasting your time. All of you. These kinds of battles aren't won by citing numbers from CATO or CAP; they're won by circulating talking points that are simple enough for average Americans to understand and share with each other. The old adage that "when you're explaining, you're losing" has countless vindicating examples, of which estate tax repeal is only one.

To clarify what I'm talking about, here are a few jacket points pulled from The FairTax Book's Amazon page, along with equally pithy rejoinders crafted by moi. Boortz and Linder claim that their "fair tax" will allow you, as an American, to:
Keep all the money in your paycheck
Government, at its most basic level, is what allows you to earn your paycheck without fear of someone coming along and taking it all away at gunpoint. You owe a certain percentage of your earnings to the organization that secures civil society for all of us.
Pay taxes on what you spend, not what you earn
How is this any more "fair" than an income tax? It's not fair to allow people to choose whether or not they want to fund non-excludable public goods like the military. This tax would allow stingy Americans to freeride like welfare recipients on government services paid for by the rest of us.
[E]liminate all the fraud, hassle, and waste of our current system
The fraud is perpetrated by people trying to evade their income taxes. Are you saying we should switch to a new system simply because the old one is too hard to enforce? And does the fact that it may be a 'hassle' mean it needs immediate replacement? As for waste, if the new system is truly revenue-neutral (which isn't certain at all), how will it ensure that the government stewards our money any better than it does now?
Make America's tax code truly voluntary, without reducing revenue
And why should the tax code be voluntary? Sure, taxation sucks, but we're all in this society together--so we should all be required to pay for it. Plus, it's probably impossible for a tax system to be both revenue-neutral and completely voluntary at the same time--do Boortz and Linder claim to accurately forsee the long-term spending habits of 300 million Americans?

Some of the above counterpoints are better than others (in fact, they should all probably be shortened), but my point is to demonstrate how to play the rhetorical game in a nation of policy laypeople. Graetz and Shapiro are right: economic populism didn't save us from estate tax repeal and it won't save us from this "fair" tax plan. What we need is simple, cogent, numbers-free philosophical arguments that neutralize the right at its own level. So hurry up and get cracking; we're already behind.