Richard Epstein: Progressivism Remains Off Key
There is a delicious irony in the Center for American Progress choosing Tax Day, April 15, 2010, to publish its new defense of the progressive intellectual tradition in the U.S. The deep intellectual confusions of that movement are caught in its opening salvo, which quotes a famous aphorism of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Taxes are the price that we pay for a civilized society.”
Ironically, the CAP study links that quotation to the U.S. Department of Treasury Web site, which has the good sense to observe that the Holmes quotation “tells us nothing about the form or levels of taxation.” Neither does CAP, it turns out. But the issue matters. Treasury reported that when Holmes penned those words in 1902 the tax burden stood at 1.3% of GDP. By 2000 the tax burden exceeded over 20%, a number that looks almost blissfully low in light of the massive new Obama taxes. Some taxes are necessary for civilization, but surely every tax, no matter how dumb, is not.
As I read through the first of the three CAP reports, that by John Halpin and Conor P. Williams on the "Progressive Intellectual Tradition in America," I found no systematic defense of our current high rates of taxation. Instead our authors dished out a cook’s tour of the major tenets of the progressive movement, which attacked any traditional theory of natural rights (which date back to Roman times), without saying where and why it broke down, or what should have been done to fix it. Nor do our authors explain what was wanting in the classical liberal efforts to use the antitrust law to counteract horizontal restraints on trade, or rate regulation to deal with the problem of large network monopoly industries, such as railroads and communication, in which competitive markets are not possible.