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Do Americans Still Believe In Sharing The Burden?
[FINAL Edition]
The Washington Post (pre-1997 Fulltext) - Washington, D.C.
Author: Reich, Robert B
Date: Apr 26, 1987
Start Page: d.01
Section: OUTLOOK

This idea isn't new. The principle of equal sacrifice is a cornerstone of modern liberal political thought. John Stuart Mill proclaimed that "Whatever sacrifices {society} requires . . . should be made to bear as nearly as possible with the same pressure upon all . . . . " In defending the nation, the wealthier should stand shoulder to shoulder with the poor. In paying taxes, the wealthier should bear a comparable financial pain by ceding a larger proportion of their incomes. Even Adam Smith, the progenitor of free market-conservatism, saw the wisdom of a progressive tax: "It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more in proportion."

In both terminating the draft and retreating from income tax progressivity, the logic was much the same. Four basic arguments were made against the rhetoric of equal sacrifice: It was hypocritical. First, it was noted that the reality fell far short of the ideal of equal sacrifice. By1973, when the draft was ended, it was clear that wealthier citizens had managed to create or exploit loopholes in the Selective Service System. The 11 million men who had served in Vietnam were drawn disproportionately from lower-income families. By 1986, tax progressivity was shown to be a similar sham. Despite a top personal rate of 50 percent, for example, families earning over $200,000 a year paid on average only 22 percent of their income in taxes. It was wasteful and bred cynicism. Second, the tactics wealthier Americans used to escape these obligations had wasted valuable resources and bred a cynical and contemptuous attitude toward the law. In the late 1960s, many draft-age men who had no intention of becoming preachers, doctors or teachers were flooding into graduate programs that offered them relief from conscription. One 1972 survey showed "avoiding the draft" to be among the three most important reasons cited for attending college. Others sought refuge in fatherhood, feigned illnesses, or various forms of legal and bureaucratic chicanery.

In a similar vein, high-income taxpayers of the 1970s and 1980s sought investments-in railroad boxcars, office buildings, and cattle feeding, to name a few-whose attractions had far more to do with avoiding tax payments than gaining direct economic returns. In seeking tactical advice and legal counsel for avoiding the draft or reducing their taxes, wealthier Americans also spawned entire service industries dedicated to outwitting the government. It was naive. Third, it was assumed to be politically unrealistic to expect any greater degree of sacrifice on the part of wealthier citizens than the actual extent to which they willingly accepted the burden. No more than a relatively low percentage of their sons could be coerced into the military; no greater than a relatively low fraction of their incomes captured by the Internal Revenue Service. It was inefficient. Fourth and finally, reform entailed a kind of exchange. In return for explicitly affirming and legitimating the relatively low burdens that wealthier citizens actually bore, the system for recruiting military personnel or for gathering personal tax payments could be rationalized and streamlined. Loopholes could be eliminated, waste and distortions removed; an unworkable and hypocritical process could be replaced by one capable of recruiting dependable soldiers or of efficiently garnering tax receipts.

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