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Arthur Brooks Goes Another Round With The Straw Man

Arthur Brooks is an interesting figure. Like pretty much all members of the conservative movement, he considers increasing the after-tax income of the affluent the highest policy priority. Most conservatives clearly believe that taxing the rich at (slightly) higher rates is unfair. But since most people think the rich should pay higher, not lower rates, they tend to concoct alternate rationales more in keeping with public opinion. We must cut the top tax rate because it will increase economic growth, perhaps so much that revenue will rise as a result. We must cut the top tax rate because the economy is slowing, or picking up speed, or to eliminate a budget surplus, or to bring it back. Or we're not really cutting taxes for the rich at all.

Brooks is different in that he more or less openly argues against progressive taxation on moral grounds, which is the real basis of the conservative belief on this question. The problem is that his moral arguments are incredibly shoddy.

Brooks' fatally flawed book defines "capitalism" as the absence of progressive taxation. One of its many flaws is that Brooks defines the debate in completely binary terms -- if you favor even the slight levels of progressivity of the current system, you oppose "capitalism." A second flaw is that Brooks justifies the absence of progressive taxation by extolling "equality of opportunity," without even attempting either to define the term or to demonstrate that it exists. As I wrote in my review, the evidence overwhelmingly shows that nothing remotely like equality of opportunity exists. 

In a recent Washington Post essay, Brooks expands upon his argument, using Paul Ryan's proposal to explain why restoring Clinton-era tax rates on the affluent would be deeply unfair. Brooks compounds his old errors and adds new ones. After introducing his premise that Ryan's tax plan is fair and Obama's isn't, Brooks offers up the following arguments:

In 2006, the World Values Survey asked a large sample of Americans to imagine two secretaries with the same job but one earning considerably more. However, the higher-paid secretary is “quicker, more efficient and more reliable.” The survey asked whether a pay difference between the two was fair. About 89 percent said the gap was fair, while about 11 percent said it was unfair. ...
if America is an opportunity society — if you have the chance to work harder, get more education and innovate — then rewarding merit is fair, and it is fair for some to make more money than others. ...
Since equality of opportunity is not universal, doesn’t this invalidate — or at least weaken — the romantic notion of meritocratic fairness? Of course not. You’re living in a dream world (or you have tenure) if you really believe merit doesn’t matter. Everyone can think of times when things went well as a direct result of hard work. We can also come up with cases in which we were punished at work or in life for laziness, incompetence, free-riding or stupidity.

Do you see what he did here? Brooks has once again defined the opposing position as holding that no differences in income level should be justified. He says that a better secretary should earn more than a weaker one, that "some [should] make more money than others," and that hard work has any relation at all to success. Obviously, Obama is not arguing otherwise. The point is that the relation between hard work and economic success is far from absolute. Therefore, Brooks' argument that it's illegitimate to impose even slightly higher tax rates on the rich on the grounds that their success reflects greater merit is premised on a clearly false premise.

Indeed, Brooks acknowledges that hard work and merit do not completely determine economic success:

And even if only a portion of the outcomes in life were due to merit, we should still gear our system to the part that is under our control. Otherwise, we have no incentive to be industrious, honest, innovative and optimistic — and there’s no reason to teach these values to our kids, either.

Notice that he has abandoned the moral rationale and taken up a consequentialist one ("we have no incentive to be industrious, honest, innovative and optimistic.") And that consequentialist argument also rests upon a straw man fallacy. We'd have "no incentive" to work hard if we faced 100% tax rates. But nobody is proposing 100% tax rates. Obama is only proposing Clinton-era tax rates. It seems pretty obvious that Clinton's tax hikes on the rich did not, in fact, destroy Americans' incentive to succeed.

I'm sure it's possible to construct some kind of moral argument against restoring slightly higher levels of progressivity to our very slightly-progressive tax code. Brooks does not appear capable of mustering such an argument. He is only capable of arguing against total socialism.