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Sunday, September 20, 2015

Of Marriage, Taxes, and Punching

punching fist

Imagine a genie were to appear before you and offer a deal along the following lines:

If you accept this one-time offer, you will never have to pay income taxes at a marginal rate above that of the median tax-payer. Even if you earned millions and lived in a high-tax jurisdiction, like New York city or California, your total marginal income tax rate will remain at about the 10% the median tax-payer pays, rather than the 50% or 60% you might have to pay under current law in these jurisdictions.

But this deal also has a down-side: You will never be allowed to marry. Sure, you will still be free to cohabit with any person of your choice, procreate, raise off-spring together, and make any contractual arrangements that seem suitable to you and your partner. You, your friends, and others (such as your church) would even be free to call such an arrangement marriage. But the government never will.

Is there any doubt that virtually all of the minority who are paying higher marginal taxes or foresee themselves doing so would jump to accept this deal? Most of the drawbacks of the deal are merely semantic. Virtually all, but not all, of the advantages of marriage can be achieved by contractual arrangements. Meanwhile, the advantages of the deal are real and enormous; they can amount to up to half of your income being retained, rather than taxed. So it is an easy choice.

Of course, none of this proves that the imposition of high marginal taxes on the minority of high earners, as the U.S. presently does, is unjust or unwise. Nor does it prove that denial of governmental recognition of marriage, as most of the U.S. did until recently, to the minority of gays and lesbians was just or wise.

But what this hypothetical does prove beyond question is that the imposition of high marginal taxes on high earners is a much larger imposition than the denial of the right to marry to gays and lesbians.

That the elimination of the latter imposition is a cause célèbre among all right-thinking people, while mere mention of a potential reduction of the former imposition is universally deemed undignified whining or worse, says a great deal about the relative social status of gays and lesbians, on the one side, and high-earners, on the other.

For we object to impositions on high-status groups, such as gays and lesbians, while we dismiss or embrace impositions on low-status groups. For example, relatively few object to the incarceration—an imposition greater than the denial of marriage or even high marginal taxes—of violent criminals, for most of us disdain violent criminals. In that regard, high earners and violent criminals share low social status in conventional discourse.

Among some it has become accepted that the merit of others' statements depends not exclusively, or perhaps at all, on the statements' inherent truth or novelty. Rather we must judge of statements on the basis of whether they enhance or reduce the status of certain social groups. Statements which reduce the status of high-status groups are admirable (afflicting the comfortable); as are statements enhancing the status of low-status groups (comforting the afflicted). However, statements which reduce the status of low-status groups (punching down) or enhancing the status of high-status groups (kissing up) are reprehensible.

Given all of the above, one must wonder if commentators who claim to embrace the punching metric of validity and express conventional views—lovingly chronicled transports of ecstasy at the Obergefell decision; sneering dismissal of any talk of lowering the marginal tax rates of high-earners—are not, in fact, punching down and kissing up.