On the same day that the ball dropped at Times Square, an even more important event occurred – Mayor de Blasio was sworn into office at City Hall. Mr. de Blasio is the first Democrat in the mayor’s office since David Dinkins left City Hall twenty years ago. While the inauguration was an opportunity for supporters to celebrate with the mayor, it also highlighted a few reasons why New Yorkers should be concerned.
Let’s start with the company de Blasio kept during the inauguration. The first major speaker on the day was Harry Belafonte, a noted music recording artist and civil rights activist. Mr. Belafonte has the dubious distinction of having received praise from Fidel Castro, and once called Condaleeza Rice and Colin Powell “house slaves” of the Bush Administration. Mr. Belafonte proceeded to skewer the outgoing Mayor Bloomberg – who was seated in the first row – without much regard for factual accuracy. In particular, Mr. Belafonte blasted Mayor Bloomberg for stop-and-frisk and bemoaned New York’s high number of incarcerated individuals, without noting that the New York City prison population had dropped by 36% since 2002.
Following Mr. Belafonte was Reverend Fred Lucas Jr., who bizarrely called New York City a “plantation.” While it is confusing what could have prompted such radical language, it is outrageous and slanderous to call Mayor Bloomberg a slave-owning planter, regardless of his own failures to defend liberty. When Bill Clinton, a beloved but comparably moderate liberal icon stepped onto the stage to offer some perspective and remind the crowd of Mayor Bloomberg’s successes as mayor, he was met with deafening silence. The people in attendance were fired up for the new Mayor’s far-left agenda, not an honest reflection on the achievements and disappointments of Mayor Bloomberg’s uneven twelve years in office.
Of course, it was eventually Mayor de Blasio’s turn to speak; amid a growing wave of editorials declaring Mr. de Blasio’s election part of a rising tide of Progressive energy across the country, the new Mayor did not disappoint. His Honor repeated the “Tale of Two Cities” rhetoric of his campaign, which centers on the idea that a parasitic elite class is destroying New York at the expense of everyone else, variously defined as the middle class, working class, or poor, depending on the audience. He also reiterated his plans to raise taxes even higher on the rich.
While it is commonplace for the lofty rhetoric of an inauguration speech to get watered down as time goes by for practical political reasons, it is clear that the results will be bad if the Mr. de Blasio gets everything he wants. Winston Churchill once said “you don’t make the poor richer by making the rich poorer,” yet that is precisely what Mr. de Blasio believes. Readers can conduct a simple internet search and sift through the dozens of articles supporting or denying the contention that higher taxes on the wealthy destroy jobs (with the answer almost always being nuanced, and not binary), but this column shall consider the liberty interests at stake.
Money (and income) is property, and in America people are allowed to utilize their own property in whatever ways they see fit, with the general limit being that they not use it to harm others. One exception to this principle is taxation; individuals surrender money to the government, which then decides through various mechanisms how to spend or utilize the wealth collected. While people often fight about what amount should be paid, only an anarchist would say that people shouldn’t pay taxes at all. There are huge collective action problems that make it much easier for the government to handle national defense and infrastructure problems in a way that benefits everyone.
But what makes taxation work is the proposition that the level of taxation should be value-enhancing for everyone. If a flat income tax rate of 10% is applied to everyone, it isn’t unfair if someone who makes $50,000 a year pays $5,000 in taxes, while someone earning $100,000 a year pays $10,000 in taxes; ideally, the benefits of the public services created (such as parks, roads, schools, security, etc.) will exceed $5,000 for the first person and $10,000 for the second person.
Problems arise though when the tax rates are such that one group receives more in benefits than it pays in taxes at the expense of another group, which pays more in taxes than it receives in benefits; then the system of taxation ceases to add value for everyone and merely becomes a disguised wealth-transfer mechanism. In a democracy, the temptation to levy taxes on anyone just a little wealthier than one’s self is always present, but it must be prevented. Civilized people form a government for their mutual gain, while barbarians use force and numbers to deprive others of their property for their own gain (of course, for an example of how wealth can be transferred by government to certain high income earners, examine how the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy has benefited those Americans wealthy enough to buy securities in the last three to four years).
The situation calls to mind the metaphorical debate in the song “The Trees” by the Canadian progressive rock band Rush. The shorter maple trees cry oppression because the taller oaks absorb most of the sunlight. The maples eventually organize and pass a “noble law” to end “oak oppression.” The song emphatically ends when Geddy Lee sings that the “trees are all kept equal by hatchet, axe, and saw.” While Mr. de Blasio’s method, like that of the maples, could eventually secure equality by dragging everyone down to the same level of wealth, a heavy progressive tax burden is not a guarantee of mutual prosperity and has about as much precision in its implementation as a hatchet.
While Mr. de Blasio brings more sizzle to New York after Mayor Bloomberg’s third term seemed to fizzle out and go flat, his election should not become a clarion call to trample on the liberty of our city’s wealthier inhabitants. Unlike race, which no one would dare to openly discriminate against in government, wealth is not an immutable characteristic. While you might vote in favor of a higher tax for your neighbor who drives a BMW today, you might find out tomorrow that you too must pay more in taxes because you drive a Lexus while the rest of your neighbors drive Fords. And then I can guarantee you’ll be against taxing the “rich.”
*Thomas Warns is a J.D. Candidate, class of 2015, at NYU School of law, Staff Editor on the NYU Journal of Law & Liberty , and author of the weekly column "Consider This a Warning."