Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Progressive Taxation and the Myth of Redistribution

The problem with conservatives using of the cliche' "redistribution" in response to any question on progressive taxation, is that it assumes that the income going to corporations and wealthy people is earned in the first place. Corporations are chartered by the government and given special consideration, avoiding some forms of liability, to accumulate capital for investment. Corporate charters do not address any aspect of fairness in determining how corporate income will be distributed. Corporations sole reason for existence is to maximize return to shareholders and minimize the cost of the factors of production, including labor, whereas the Constitution charges government with promoting the general welfare. So there is a conflict in the goals of these two institutions. Wealthy people and corporate executives are much more dependent on income from capital than from wages. So benefits accruing to corporations also tend to accrue more to the wealthy than to average wage earners.

In assessing what income is actually earned, all factors must be considered, not just who receives income under current law. Clearly corporations and their largely wealthy benefactors would not prosper to the extent they do if they didn't operate in a country with an established system of laws and infrastructure bequeathed to them by past generations. So it is not clear that just because someone earns an income that it should be attributed only to their own efforts. Some credit must be given to the system they operate under and the contributions of others in generating their income. This is particularly true of corporate income, where executives get to decide where the income goes, without much interference from outside sources. Under conditions of labor surplus this results in most of the income being diverted to owners of capital. Under labor shortages, more would be claimed by labor. But, under our current system, where illegal immigration and outsourcing operates largely unfettered, labor is at a major disadvantage in maintaining it's interest without government assistance.

Aggravating this conflict of interest is the fact that wealthy people and corporations have more influence on government through lobbying and campaign financing, whereas average wage earners have a much reduced voice in how laws are made. This allows the wealthy to create tax loopholes which favor their interests at the expense of the average wage earner.

The solution to this conflict could come from two different directions. First, corporate law could be changed to charge corporations with some measure of promoting the welfare of their workers, not only the welfare of their shareholders and executives. The other way, which is currently used, is progressive taxation. It will be difficult to make major changes in this arrangement, so, at least for now, we must be content with using progressive taxation to promote the general welfare. So the next time you hear a conservative claim income redistribution in response to a question of on progressive taxation, point out to them that it is only a means to compensate for the unfair claims on income, due to the advantages given to corporations and the wealthy by our corporate charters and lobbying laws.

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