Grover Norquist, a darling of the religious and political right, quipped one time that government should be reduced to a size that it can be drowned in a bathtub, and then drowned.
Without a doubt this is one of the most simplistic, disingenuous remarks ever made about the role of government.
Norquist taps public resentment of taxes without a hint of his underlying opposition to Social Security, public education and all that makes middle-class prosperity possible.
Behind his remarks lies a clever, if not insidious, strategy formulated by conservative political strategists.
Going all the way back to Franklin Roosevelt’s aggressive “New Deal” policies, but especially focusing on Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” policies, conservative politicians have worked tirelessly to undo any benefit that might come to poor and middle-class Americans, who by the way have more in common with each other than with the wealthy.
Roosevelt, of course, exacted some of the most extreme taxes on the wealthy to end the Great Depression, put unemployed Americans back to work and create the ultimate social safety net that we now know as Social Security.
Between 1932-40, the years of the Great Depression, the tax rate for income over $1 million was 63 percent. It was eventually raised to 81 percent by 1941.
During World War II, the top bracket was 88 percent for income over $200,000, peaking at over 90 percent by 1945. That remained the top bracket until it dropped to 77 percent in 1964.
Resistance to his efforts at the time sometimes approached the levels of social revolution as wealthy industrialists and entrepreneurs sought ways to undo his presidency and his mandate.
The effort to resist taxing the most privileged among us has continued to this day and has become something resembling almost a religious dogma.
The mantra “no taxes, no taxes” is chanted among conservatives as if it were an inviolable religious belief.
According to Thomas Edsall in his groundbreaking 1992 book, “Chain Reaction,” conservatives have effectively cast the whole tax debate in terms of a conflict between “taxpayers” and “tax receivers.”
In other words, there are these productive, hard-working Americans that go to work, produce things and pay their taxes.
Then, we are told, there are these other Americans who do not work, who sit around all day doing nothing and live off of the taxes of the taxpayers.
If we are to make America great again, we are told, we must protect the taxpayers and deprive the tax receivers.
In other words, reduce the tax burden on the rich while shrinking the parts of government that protect the poor and empower the middle class down to the size where they can be drowned in a bathtub.
The fallacies that exist in this political and economic rhetoric are endless.
In the first place, it is not only the poor that are tax receivers. Oil companies receive their generous depletion allowances, farmers who grow cotton and tobacco are heavily subsidized by tax dollars. And don’t get me started on how much money went to Wall Street during the most recent economic meltdown.
Beyond that, tax receivers do not necessarily live in project houses and depend on welfare.
Many of them live and work and depend on tax dollars for student loans for their children; they depend on tax dollars for the maintenance of our highways, food quality and even the local fire department.
To bring the matter closer to home, the no-tax mantra that has come to dominate conservative politics is currently putting at risk thousands of children who would otherwise be covered by Medicaid in Alabama.
Because of an unwillingness to raise taxes on those most able to pay in Alabama, the governor is proposing a cut in Medicaid protection for children of nearly $250 million.
You can drown the government in a tub if you want, but it may be that many of us, not just the neediest, will go down the drain with it.
Editor’s note: EthicsDaily.com’s documentary on faith and taxes, “SacredTexts, SocialDuty,” will receive a partial screening at this year’s ethics luncheon at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship general assembly in Fort Worth, Texas, in June. Watch the documentary trailer below and order luncheon tickets here.