Let me say up front that because I try to be an orthodox Catholic, taking my inspiration from the teachings of the Church, I cannot be a libertarian; nor do I think that libertarians have much that is useful to say about the fulfillment of man's nature as a social being. I also suspect, in my moments of sporadic agreement with the pacificst theologian Stanley Hauerwas, that we Christians in the United States have a greater need of beggars than we would care to admit — a need of people who turn aside from the moneying game. Some of those beggars may be unemployable for practical reasons, but others may be genuine contemplatives, who remind us that the heart of life is not to be found in a paycheck, or in the fancy things we snatch at the store.
Nor do I have any natural affection for rich people. The small town where I grew up had one or two sort-of rich people in it: the family that owned the oldest continuously-running pharmacy in the country (now defunct); the family of the town doctor; the family that ran the biggest grocery store (now a supermarket, and sold away). I went to the local Catholic grade school with the children from these families, who lived pretty much as everyone else lived, except in a Victorian house. My first real encounter with Money came when I went to college, and met kids who went to boarding schools (what were they?), whose parents took vacations to Bermuda (we went to visit my cousins in New Jersey), whose pastimes included sailing (our Lackawanna River was four feet deep), and who frequented expensive restaurants (we could get lobster at Sharkey's for three dollars a pound). I found it hard sometimes to make friends with them, not that I or they tried very hard at it.
And yet — I don't exactly sympathize with "the rich," whoever they may be, but I don't envy them, either, and I certainly don't want their money. They can keep it, for all I care, and for all the good it will do them. There's something that unsettles me about the idea that they "owe" me or their country a far greater portion of their substance than I or anybody else owes. I understand that, within reason, rich people should pay taxes in accordance with their wealth, and that they do. But I want to be careful here. If a bridge needs to be built, then the state has the moral duty to raise money to build the bridge, which will serve the common good. It's justifiable, then — one can make a case for it — to tax wealthy people at a somewhat higher rate than others are taxed, to build the bridge; for it may be that the wealthy will enjoy a greater benefit from anything that the state does to encourage trade or business, seeing that they have more substance to invest in business to begin with. But it doesn't seem right to me to advocate taking money from A, because he has it, to give it to B, because he doesn't have it, without making B subject to expectations enjoined upon him by the local community of which A or someone like A is a part. That is, if I lend money to my nephew Ronnie, I have the right to expect that he will not blow it at Foxwood's, but will use it for the purpose for which I lent it. That's not simply because it's my money, but because I could have put that same money to a hundred other uses — I might have given it instead to my niece, or my neighbor. The principle is similar to that of eminent domain. The state may take my property, compensating me for it with a just price, to build something that might, in principle, be used by everyone, directly or nearly-directly, such as a bridge, a road, a harbor, or an airport. But it may not in justice take my property merely to give it to someone else, like a developer, who happens to want it, and who dangles in front of the city the possibility of a higher tax base. I might want to keep my house for selfish reasons, just as a miser might want to keep his money. But I might want to keep it for good and generous reasons, just as a father who has been successful in business might use some of his wealth to build a neighborhood playground, or to set up a family member in a trade, or to buy new hymnals for his church.
The welfare state begins by compelling people to put money aside for their old age — the fiction of the Social Security trust fund comes to mind. There, at least, there is some correspondence between what the state takes from you and what the state will give back. And the state has a genuine interest in keeping people from destitution. But what happens eventually is that people in charge of a welfare state come to think of all things as belonging to them: children, for instance, are wards of the state, lent out to their parents conditionally; families are creations of the state; money is all the state's to play with, so that refraining from raising people's taxes is viewed as a "gift" to them. I don't see that. Nor do I see that Death is some game-scrambler, the great opportunity to ignore the generation-spanning essence of the family, so as to rifle half of an estate, often compelling people to sell a homestead just to pay the taxes on it.
I'm not talking here about current economic policy. I don't pretend to be an economist. Maybe we need to raise taxes during a recession, though that seems counterintuitive to me. What bothers me is the sense that somehow the desire to levy taxes on the wealthy is a sign of moral maturity, and that a rich man is merely selfish to resent any use of those monies. As I said, I don't see that.