By: Richard Oxenberg
Do the wealthy pay their fair share in taxes? How do we determine this “fair share”? Does the government have the right to tax some in order to provide services for others? What is the basis of this right? Is redistributive taxation a form of theft, as some on the political right claim, or might it indeed be mandated by the fundamental principles upon which a free society is founded? These are some of the questions that are up front and center for us in this political year.
The purpose of the following essay is to explore the philosophical basis for answering such questions. In particular, I wish to examine the philosophical underpinnings of what might be called “progressive liberalism,” by showing its derivation from the basic principles of classical liberalism – especially as these are developed by John Locke, whose theory of natural law and natural rights was instrumental in providing the ethical framework for the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution. I argue that a careful analysis of the right to property as developed by Locke shows that this right is neither absolute nor unlimited. Indeed, analysis shows that, considered in the light of modern capitalist society, to honor this right will demand a fairly robust and ongoing program of progressive taxation, aid to the poor, and social programs sufficient to bring the distribution of property into accord with the “difference principle” articulated by John Rawls. This principle implies that a just economic system must be such as to garner the freely proffered consent of its least advantaged members.