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Thoughts on the Anti-Tax Pledge

With negotiations over how to avoid going over the “fiscal cliff” intensifying, there’s a lot of attention on Grover Norquist and his “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” in which lawmakers who sign it pledge to taxpayers that they will (a) oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and (b) oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

On the pledge, I have several thoughts.

1. Mr. Norquist has basically been a force for good, since he raises the price of tax increases and allows Republicans to get more in return for them. That said, I have never liked the idea of politicians signing pledges beyond their oath to support and defend the Constitution. It locks a person into a position that may seem reasonable at the time but eventually becomes unwise. I support lower tax rates, but they are not a talisman. And whether or not one should agree to higher taxes depends on what one is able to get in return.

What taxes are we talking about? How much are the increases? For how long? And in exchange for what? Genuine spending cuts and/or structural reforms in entitlement programs? Those things may not be achievable; but to say in advance that taxes should never, under any scenario, be increased is to elevate a prudential judgment to a sacred principle. And that is the kind of dogmatism that is antithetical to genuine conservatism.

2. I’m sympathetic to the qualities we should look for in a representative and which Edmund Burke referred to in his speech to the electors of Bristol: “his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience.” In addition, in a letter to Samuel Span in 1778, Burke—in taking up the issue of a union between Britain and Ireland—made this observation: “It is a settled rule with me, to make the most of my actual situation; and not to refuse to do a proper thing, because there is something else more proper, which I am not able to do.” What Burke is arguing for, I think, is a certain independence of judgment and prudence in politicians. 

It seems to me that pledges run somewhat counter to both. Politicians should offer their vision and agenda and ask for the public’s trust to carry those things out in a reasonable, if imperfect, way. If they fail, voters have a recourse, which is called an election.

3. What about Members of the House and Senate who signed a pledge not to raise taxes but have now changed their mind? That isn’t an easy judgment to make, since violating a pledge is a serious matter. But if one believes doing so really advances the common good, then he needs to be straightforward with the public and admit to having been mistaken in signing the pledge in the first place, rather than engage in contortions in an effort to justify his decision. And then it is up to the public to decide what the consequences ought to be.

My own view is that one should take public officials in the totality of their acts and that reneging on an unwise commitment isn’t by itself disqualifying. For example, if Ronald Reagan had signed the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” (he didn’t) and raised taxes during his presidency (he did), I don’t believe it would have warranted a primary challenge. And whatever one thinks of Reagan’s decisions to raise taxes—and he regretted some more than others—he remains a monumental conservative figure.

I happen to believe that in our present circumstances, tangible steps toward structurally reforming entitlements are a higher priority than not increasing revenues. I wouldn’t be inclined to do the latter without getting firm guarantees on the former; and even then, it would be less than ideal. But we ought to make the most of our actual situation and not refuse to do a proper thing, because there is something else more proper, which we are not able to do. 



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