One of the memes of the contemporary Right is a complaint that a small number of rich persons pays most of the income taxes while a great number pays little or none. The fact is assumed to be a problem, and it might very well be one, but it is not a problem with the income tax but a proof that it is working exactly as intended. While the motives for introducing peacetime income taxes are complicated, they are undeniably artifacts of a Progressive era desire to place a greater burden on the rich and to relieve a perceived burden to the poor. Reagan’s complaint that a 90% marginal rate (from 1953-61) effected productivity was not a bug but a feature: One has to choose between limiting productivity and getting a group of very rich persons, and the before the modern conservative movement we saw a loss of productivity as an acceptable cost of eliminating the anti-democratic presence of the very rich. Again, it’s altogether possible that this is a false dilemma or the wrong response to a true problem – the only point I want to draw is that its silly to think that looking at who pays income tax gives us a fact that speaks for itself.
The point generalizes: political discussions require a paradoxical cognitive state that simultaneously maintains very clear principles while being aware of the extraordinary messiness and costliness of their application, where both the “messiness” and the “cost” in turn count as rational objections against the principles themselves. Political thought requires an exquisitely well-balanced personality that one never expects to find, and what usually fills the gap is, if anything, a sort of anti-politics since there is nothing further from politics than sloganeering, taboo words, blind party loyalty, leaping on offhand remarks or gaffes and replaying them for years, puff pieces or “gotcha” interviews, or screaming, booing, and even weeping with a little flag and a funny hat to the rhythms of the Jumbotron.