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Grover Norquist and the metaphysics of taxes

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When I first read this passage from Norquist’s NYT Op-Ed this morning regarding what counts as a violation of the no new taxes pledge he authored 25 years ago, I hadn’t had any coffee yet and it made no sense whatsoever:

Finally, there has been much confusion — some of it my fault — over whether the ending of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts or the A.M.T. “patches,” scheduled for Dec. 31, 2012, should count as a tax hike. If they are ended, the government will take in nearly $4 trillion more over the next decade than if they remain.

My position, and the implications of the pledge regarding such “temporary” tax cuts, is clear. If there were no vote in Congress and taxes rose automatically, then no politicians would have voted for higher taxes and no elected official would have broken his or her pledge.

But that is different from supporting a plan by some Democrats that would end some [!] or all of these lower tax rates, higher per-child tax credits and the A.M.T. patches
— policies that, by the way, Congress has extended repeatedly with bipartisan support. It is difficult to see how such a package would fail to violate the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. Contrary to the hopes of some that I am somehow softening the pledge, it is stronger and more important than ever: it has made it easier for members of Congress to credibly commit to voters that they will refuse to increase taxes and instead focus on reducing the cost of government.

Did you follow that? If all these lower tax rates expire without further legislative action then members of Congress who allow this to happen will not have raised taxes. But if members vote for a bill that (among other things I suppose) “ends some or all of these lower tax rates” then that does count as raising taxes.

What’s going on here? Theories:

(1) Norquist is all twisted up in some devious game where he wants to kill any “grand bargain” in the works.

(2) He adheres to some very strange act/omission distinction in regard to the politics of taxes.

The second possibility is more interesting. It would track with what to me has always been one of the weirdest quirks of the anti-tax theology of the contemporary GOP, which is its otherwise inexplicable objections to “wealth redistribution.” The “logic” of the position seems to be something like this: It’s OK for government to collect taxes to pay for government services, but it’s not OK to take money people have earned and give it to other people who haven’t earned it. This view requires maintaining various distinctions that collapse under the slightest intellectual pressure, which is one reason great care is taken to never exert any (the anti-intellectualism celebrated on the right is among other things a pragmatic strategy).

Norquist’s otherwise strange act/omission distinction makes a certain degree of sense in this broader context. The basic underlying metaphysical assumption appears to be something like, “There’s a natural economic order. Interference with that order is bad. Legislative action interferes with that order. Legislative inaction does not. Therefore higher taxes that result from legislative inaction are not tax hikes, while precisely the same tax rates — or even tax rates that are lower overall than the present baseline; note the “some” in the quoted passage — resulting from legislative action are tax hikes.

If Norquist and his ilk really do adhere to this kind of distinction, then it becomes more obvious than ever that there’s no reason to compromise on the expiration of the Bush tax cuts.

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