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Buffett's Rule Reconsidered

Jonathan B. Wight

A Richmond Times Dispatch editorial "Buffett Rule: Already Accomplished" today argued that because average tax rates on billionaires are higher than average tax rates on those in the next lower income group, this somehow implies that current tax rates are appropriate and no Buffett Rule needs to be enacted.

The thinking is flawed.  First, in America we don't adopt the conception of average justice we adopt a convention of individual justice.  If there are 10 men in a police line-up, and 5 of them are guilty of homicide, we don't say justice is done if we pick 5 men at random from the group and give them the death penalty—even if on average we have executed the right number of men!

Individual justice demands that people be treated on the basis of their own characteristics.  Hence, the average tax rate of billionaires is not the issue of contention.  What is at stake is whether specific individual billionaires' tax rates are appropriate. 

There has been abundant evidence presented that due to legal loopholes some billionaires are not paying a rate higher than their secretaries.  Averages mask this important information. 

Second, a personal swipe at Buffett was unseemly and irrelevant: "rich people who argue for higher taxes almost never avail themselves of this opportunity"—implying Buffet is insincere and hypocritical.  But altruism is rarely the preferred mechanism for carrying out economic policies.  When someone like Buffett calls for a fairer tax structure he is not arguing on the basis of altruism, he is arguing from the basis of justice.  Benevolence and justice are not the same thing, as Adam Smith noted long ago. 

It is strange that the RTD, long a supporter of individual rights, would fall into the misleading language of averages to support a weak argument.

[This blog also posted at the Richmond Times Dispatch, http://punditspodium.tumblr.com/]


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