Daniel Henninger has gone down the rabbit hole. In his column for the Wall Street Journal he inveighs against the countless ways in which the tax code is manipulated by legislators to reward this or that constituency—or donors and lobbyists, as the case may be. The whole mess has been reaffirmed in the bill that was just passed to avert going over the fiscal cliff.
All to the good. Where he goes wrong is lumping this insider game with various efforts to use the tax code to encourage socially productive behavior. He writes: “The bill has $335 billion for the child tax credit, the sort of expenditure some conservatives like. But then no complaining about the rest of it.” He goes on, “You can’t pick and choose which tax heist to join. You’re in for all of them. In time everyone’s a tax gangster.”
Only a very ideological person can fail to distinguish between a tax code designed to subsidize the extraordinary costs of being a parent—the single most important act of citizenship anyone can perform—and one that subsidizes the production of ethanol. Unfortunately, many so-called conservatives think the way he does. For them, having a child is a “lifestyle choice” among many. Why should government be in the “social engineering” business of encouraging people to have children?
Purity, yes, but at the price of anything resembling political responsibility. One of the ideological dreams of modern men and women is government without politics. The Left entertains dreams of society administered by disinterested experts. The Right dreams of a libertarian society in which everybody’s private choices, unconstrained and undistorted by government, somehow constellate to make us all richer and happier—the invisible hand at work. But neither is possible. We’ve got to live in the world of actual human beings, which means a never-ending debate about how the power of government—including and perhaps especially its taxing power—should best serve the common good. No doubt that means doing our best to prevent the perversion of the tax code to serve special interests, but it also requires discerning when the tax code must be tilted this way or that to serve the general interest.
Ask the Japanese if having children isn’t very, very important for the future of society.