This afternoon, President Barack Obama gave a speech affirming his support for extending some of the 2001 and 2003 temporary federal tax cuts, which are often grouped together and referred to as the “Bush tax cuts.” It was a bluntly political speech made for the sole purpose of making headlines tomorrow along the lines of “President Obama Supports Tax Cuts.” I’ve written before about the so-called “Bush tax cuts,” so if you want to know my opinion about whether or not they should be extended, look here.
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to ignore the political and policy questions in order to examine the political principle at work behind them. In particular, I want to draw your attention to one small, yet extraordinarily important part of the president’s speech:
“Many members of the other party believe that prosperity comes from the top down, so that if we spend trillions more on tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, that that will somehow unleash jobs and economic growth.” (emphasis added)- President Barack Obama, July 9th, 2012.
Consider the phrase that I put in bold. In President Obama’s understanding of taxes and spending, cutting taxes equals government spending. Most people will feel an intuitive sense of foreboding upon hearing that statement, but might not be able to articulate the exact problem with it.
Here’s the problem: If cutting taxes is government spending, then the money you earn at work isn’t really yours. It’s the government’s money. Taxes aren’t taking a portion of your income, taxes are simply claiming what is rightfully the government’s income. If the government decides to lower taxes, then it’s being generous and allowing you to keep more money. In other words, tax cuts are a way for government to kindly give you its money.
So, under President Obama’s framework, cutting taxes for wealthy Americans isn’t allowing wealthy Americans to keep more of what they earned. It’s giving them the government’s money. Therefore, it’s government spending. President Obama isn’t trying to use a neat rhetorical flourish here when he said that extending the tax cuts for the wealthy will mean spending trillions on them. That’s honestly the way he perceives it.
How could the President of the United States have such a topsy-turvy understanding of taxes and spending? It’s simple, really. Whereas most Americans consider the American people as the center of our society, and particularly individual citizens, President Obama sees the federal government as the center of our society.
This is why government-centered solutions are at the heart of his policies. If he believes that there’s a significant problem in American society, government ought to step in to solve it. This isn’t baseless conjecture on my part, it was the primary argument for ObamaCare. As the president saw it, the “free market” wasn’t providing every American with health insurance coverage, and he considered that a serious problem, so he created a government-centered solution to fix it. Again, I’ll ignore the wisdom of his policy solution (and the fact that the pre-ObamaCare health care and insurance markets already had massive, massive government intervention causing problems and raising costs).
Almost needless to say, a government-centered society is far from the one envisioned by the Founders. They wanted to create a free society. They acknowledged the need for government due to the flawed nature of man, but they wanted to place strict limits on government in order to avoid replicating the tyranny they experienced under the British crown.
They charged the federal government with defending the natural rights of individual citizens, and wrote a Constitution granting the government limited, enumerated powers in order to meet that responsibility. They considered the individual citizen the center of society. This November, Americans will need to decide whether they agree with the Founders, or if they support President Obama’s vision of a government-centered society.