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Cutting Taxes Is Selfish

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All right! Finally some basic talk about taxes. How refreshing!

Inspiring my utterly sincere glee is a remark by Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers last week. He criticized people who want to cut the estate tax for being selfish.

Ouch! That hurt. And the Republicans quickly responded. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Mr. Summers “owes every American taxpayer an explanation for his unfair and irrational accusation that Republican efforts to cut taxes are motivated by selfishness.”

The vice president of the National Federation of Independent Business, Dan Danner, weighed in, too: “We think it’s pretty horrible when they imply that thousands of small business owners who just want to pass their business to their children are selfish. It certainly leaves us with serious concern that they don’t understand the job-creating role that small business plays in America and in the economy.”

Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House Republican Conference, said Summers’s remark illustrates “the arrogance of the liberal elite, who believe that government has some right to redistribute the fruits of a life’s work.”

“It sounds like a comment that people who believe in socialism would make,” said House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Bill Archer.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce chief economist Martin Regalia said, “There is a chance this year of creating a bipartisan approach to cutting taxes and balancing the budget. Instead, the administration comes out and throws bombs at the whole idea. Their response to everything is that it only helps the rich.”

Could a farce be more transparent? Do the Republicans and business lobbies actually believe that reality is so malleable, that if they just refuse to pronounce the words the facts will go away?

A week later, Summers retracted his remark, but in fact he had been basically right. Can we really take the Republicans seriously who criticized him? Where Summers went erred was in thinking there is something wrong with people’s wanting to keep their own money for personal reasons. Let me be the one to say it: there is nothing wrong with that!

True, taxes hurt the economy. Therefore, repealing (not just cutting) the estate tax would be good for general prosperity. But people like their taxes cut, not primarily for the sake of general prosperity, but for the “selfish” reason that they want to control their own money. And it is no less “selfish” to want to hand a legacy off to your children. What could be more “selfish” at the end of your life than to benefit your own children and know that your life’s work will live on? Who would die happy knowing that his children will have to liquidate that life’s work to feed the ravenous state?

Everyone, in the private recesses of his own mind, knows why he and everyone else want to keep their money. But people haven’t yet acknowledged that this motivation is proper. The self is the thing in you that chooses and acts. It *is* you. That makes it the very source of virtue. How then can self-interest be distasteful?

The sanctimony of the GOP and business lobbies is shameful. Chairman Archer says that only a socialist would condemn tax cutting as selfish. Excuse me, Mr. Chairman, but socialism is the social system that *outlaws* self-interest. To deny that people want tax cuts for reasons of self-interest is to accord legitimacy to socialism.

It is embarrassing to have to remind people of this in the United States of America. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson singled out three natural rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The last phrase, appearing instead of “property,” has prompted much discussion. I cannot say what Jefferson was thinking. But here’s a plausible theory: Property is already implicit in liberty. If you are free, you can use your belongings as you see fit. But by specifying the pursuit of happiness Jefferson might have been pointing out that the blessing of liberty need not be justified through selfless service to others. One’s life and happiness on earth are justification enough.

Novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand said some years ago that when Republicans and conservatives, the putative defenders of capitalism, justify liberty on the basis of self-sacrifice, they have already surrendered to liberty’s avowed enemies. Lovers of liberty should be feeling rather uncomfortable right now.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.