Can Republicans escape the tax trap?

Of course, what Republicans really want to say is that raising taxes on anyone, especially right now, is just a popular way to avoid having to make the kinds of dramatic cuts necessary to begin the hard work of restoring balance to the budget at some point in the next hundred years. In reality, Republicans know, the Democrats want to raise taxes on those who can most afford it to satisfy their deeply held urge to make a self-conscious show of officially shared sacrifice.

The liberal-progressive case for tax hikes is not, at root, economic. It’s moral. Since politics, for the left, is all about minimizing human suffering, liberals and progressives set a trap for Republicans by asking in tough times not for shared suffering but for shared money.

Nobody should have to surrender more of their wealth to the government as a penalty for being too well-off to hurt as much as others. But the manifest failure of liberal governance to create wealth and reverse recessions drives frustrated Americans already suspicious of technocratic management to support punitive taxation over macroeconomic policy of any kind.

The hard fact for the GOP is that it is popular to take more money from richer Americans for no reason more sophisticated than that they’re richer.

Why? When Republicans turn against their own cuts for the bottom brackets, dig in their heels for the upper brackets, and indulge in hypocrisy to subsidize the middle brackets out of fear for the secret weakness of Real America, whatever clarity and focus their fiscal-responsibility brand once had is lost — and the straightforward liberal creed of redistributionism takes its place in the public imagination.

How to escape such a trap? As some tea party politicos have indicated, a full overhaul of the tax code — destroying its use as a tool of social engineering — could produce a significant marginal increase in revenues consistent with a liberty agenda. But that herculean labor would take time. In an atmosphere of perpetual crisis and ginned-up moral outrage over “income inequality,” Congress is rendered incapable of such important work.

Worse, pulling out the feeding tubes of credits and subsidies is a painful process that cannot be done in a hurry without doing the economy — and people — damage. Old-fashioned conservative prudence cautions strongly against drastic changes to our perverse tax system — with or without steep budget cuts.

The way out of the tax trap ultimately involves a big reconfiguration of the GOP brand. Fiscal responsibility is good, but in politics — as opposed to business — it’s not an end in itself. In politics, the purpose of fiscal responsibility is to help prevent government from paying itself to grow in size and power. That might not be an easy sell in an era when many people actually want to pay for the security promised by servitude. But it’s far more compelling a message than what the GOP is offering now.

James Poulos is a columnist at The Daily Caller, a contributor at Ricochet, and a commentator in print, online, and on television and radio. Recently he has been the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. His website is jamespoulos.com and his Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.