By now most everyone's seen the video clip of "Joe the Plumber," making the rounds on the e-waves, in his brief conversation with the TV anchoress. What fascinates me about the interview was that it seemed we were watching creatures from two utterly different universes, or from two different epochs. The anchoress -- I'm not sure who it was; I don't watch them -- was all smiles, all makeup, with her expensive coif and her neat business suit. Then you have Joe, nearly bald, stocky, wearing an ordinary sweat shirt and jacket, hardly smiling at all; it was as if he thought that the election hinged upon matters that transcended the moment, and that were certainly more important than his own brief burst of notoriety.
I'd like to think that Joe may do his part in turning the election -- who knows? So I've decided to post something each day for the next week on what we can glean from that interview. The most significant, as I see it: Joe's refusal to take the socialist bait. We all complain about high taxes; even people I know who pay a small fraction of what I pay still complain about their payments. That's a part of living in a civilized society. It can mean as little as idle talk about the weather, or the Red Sox. Most of us, too, will concede that the idea of taxation is not inherently unjust. We need government to do some things that we cannot do, or can hardly do, on our own -- to provide for national defense, for instance. So we agree to pay taxes to enable the government to do that. It is a contribution (and it should be a modest contribution) to a part (and it should be a modest part) of the common good.
But what happens when taxes are used not for the sake of something we each have a share in, as roads and armies? Then we might see the tax code used, for instance, as a powerful weapon of social control -- and examples of this are everywhere to be found in our country; in fact, it's hard for me to determine whether the tax code as it stands is primarily a revenue gathering device for Washington, or a behavior controlling device. Yet that is not the worst use that taxes can be put to, not by far, even discounting the use of the money for what is downright evil, such as, to use Archbishop Chaput's recent words, the millions of "little murders" that we have committed over the last decades. One can collect taxes in order to rig up a vision of what a utopian society would look like, regardless of the fact that the vision is not shared by everyone, or that there is no tangible and immediate good that the taxes would purchase, in whose benefit everyone would share (as is the case with roads, and possibly with schools). And that's no more than state sanctioned theft.
The notorious eminent domain case coming out of -- where else? -- Chicago a few years ago is a case in point. Property was seized -- people were compelled to sell their homes -- not so that a new road would be built (roads do have to be built sometimes; that is the sort of thing that the provision for eminent domain was meant to allow for), but so that a private developer could come in, tear down the old homes, build new ones, sell them at a profit, and provide a bigger base of revenue for the city. If we chop out the middle steps in the series of exchanges, it amounted to nothing more than a claim by Chicago that the people in those homes had to sell them because Chicago wanted more money out of them, period. And that is analogous to Mr. Obama's statement to Joe the Plumber, that some people should pay higher taxes, not because they need to shoulder a fair share of the burden for building things that contribute to the common good (although, as it's been pointed out in many places, the lower forty percent of tax filers are paying no federal income tax at all), but simply because some people in power believe that it would be a good thing merely to take money from Joe and give it to Ed. Joe, in their august determination, has money to spare, and Ed would like some of it. At which point one wonders, morally, what the difference is, if Ed simply decided to cut out the middleman, to spare the taxpayers all the red tape, and maybe even to save Joe a little money too, by robbing him outright of, let's say, half of the money that the revenooers would have taken from Joe (while skimming their take from the top, for the laborer is worthy of his hire).
Joe understood all this. Asked by the anchoress what difference it made to him -- since he obviously did not make a quarter of a million dollars a year, he being a lowly plumber, of all things, and not a stylish anchoress reading fifth-grade English from a teleprompter -- if people making above that level were taxed at a higher rate, just an itty witty bit higher, he replied, almost as if his honor were impugned by the very question, that he didn't want their money to be taken from them. Why should he? "That's socialism," he said, cutting to the heart of the matter, noting that the rich already pay more in taxes, because they pay according to their higher income. It never occurred to the reporter, though you could see it was flashing through Joe's mind, that small business owners often file taxes as if they were single taxpayers, and that a quarter of a million dollars in a good year is by no means unthinkable for a contractor or a farmer. That doesn't make them permanently rich; there are some bad years mixed in with those good years; and there's no guarantee that you'll be able to continue doing that kind of difficult work until your old age. So, no, he didn't think it was a good idea to take money from his own pocket and stick it in someone else's, or to take money from someone else's pocket and stick it in his, merely because some poobah with authority grossly disproportionate to what he should justly exercise thought it was fine and dandy. It's as if the thief were to say, "What's it to you, pal? I'm only taking the cash. I'm leaving you your credit cards. The nerve of some people!"
And through it all I hear the sonorous voice of the Anointed One, the Blessed Obama, intoning that he did not want to punish Joe's success, no, but he did want to "spread the wealth around," he with the brother who lives in a hovel in Kenya, he with the running mate whose idea of charitable giving apparently is to flip a nickel once in a while to the drunk on the streetcorner. There's such a contrast there, too: the smug and spoiled academic, who has never met a payroll, never got his hands filthy or cut up with tough work, judging from his Solomonic chair just how much of the man's baby should be sliced off for the benefit of somebody else. "By what authority?" asked Joe, another question that the reporter never considered. For in this life, the only way to level is with a great big steamroller; we can only be made equal in one respect by means of monstrous inequality in another. But that's all right; we can all lie prone before the Messiah.