07 May Equality: Governments Must Treat People Equally and Fairly
Principles for Federal Government
It is said in some businesses that “our most valuable assets walk out the door every night.” Some say the prized assets “go up and down the elevator every day,” or they use a similar phraseology. The business managers who say this are not talking about an internal theft problem. They are making the point that their employees, their staff, their people are the biggest advantage the company has—more valuable than buildings, machinery, trade secrets, inventory, and cash. Without its people, a company is in trouble. Because of this, management knows a company needs to treat its people right, or it will lose them and the business will suffer.
The same is even more true for a country. A nation must treat its citizens (and guests) right, or the nation will not accomplish its purposes.
This is why Principle Based Politics has selected equality as the foremost principle for our federal government: All people must be treated equally and fairly by the government. Our founders recognized this,* thus our being “created equal” became the very first “self-evident” “truth” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. If the federal government of the United States of America is going to fulfill its purpose to serve the people of the country by making their lives better, it must do so for all of the people of the country, equally and fairly.
*Let’s get right out on the table that our founders, though brilliant in many respects, were far from perfect. One major problem is they wrote “all men are created equal.” It would be easy to justify this as using the word “men” as shorthand for “human beings,” but, unfortunately, the founders compounded their error by not ensuring that female human beings had the right to vote. Moreover, the “human beings” argument is further undercut by slaves not being fully included in the category by the founders themselves. Thankfully, these Constitutional defects were remedied later—albeit horribly belatedly—by amendments specifically giving women the right to vote and former slaves an express right to “equal protection of the laws.” We still have work to do as a country to achieve true “equality,” however, which is one reason this principle remains primary and imperative for our federal government today.
Many are the contexts in which equality issues come before our federal government. Just recently, Congress has debated and voted on a bill called the “Equality Act,” and the “Equal Rights Amendment” was the talk of the land in the 1970s (both houses of the congress approved it, as did 35 state legislatures, but constitutional amendments require three-fourths vote of the states). There have been other proposed laws with similar names.
An Example: How Can the Government Apply the Equality Principle?
Federal income tax laws provide a handy case for application of the equality principle. Our purpose here is simply to show how politicians can and should make policy decisions by relying on principles, including the principle of equality. Our purpose today is not to opine on tax policy, but simply to demonstrate how to base political decisions on principles.* This is just an illustration of how a principled politician should approach an issue.
*This blog will publish an entire series of posts this summer in which we will lay out the substantive policies (including tax policy) we think would result from application of the decision-making process Principle Based Politics advocates.
Equality in taxation. Seems like a worthy goal, right? Query, though, how far the nation’s founders in 1776 or 1787 would have carried the concept of equality if they had contemplated federal income taxes (which were not imposed until allowed by the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913). Does equality mean that every person in the United States pays, say, $12,000 in federal income tax this year? Although that is the sum obtained by dividing our national budget by our total population, we think the answer clearly is “no.” Equality does not require that every man, woman, and child pays the same raw number. So, does equality instead mean that everyone pays, say, 20 percent of income to the federal government, and that absolutely no higher or lower tax brackets, deductions, or tax credits are allowed to anybody? In this hypothetical, a widowed mother of four who makes $20,000 per year would pay $4,000 and have $16,000 left, whereas the professional athlete with no children who makes $20 million per year would pay the IRS $4 million and have $16 million left. Is that what equality demands?
Whereas the “flat rate” idea in the second example is closer to achieving real equality than would be a “flat tax,” both are overly simplistic. The point of this exercise, however, is to illustrate that the principled lawmaker cannot view any issue or even a legitimate principle in isolation, but must also balance the equality desire with other relevant governing principles, along with the leadership principles we have discussed in prior posts. When the issue is federal income taxation, principles such as limited government, protecting the vulnerable, transparency, and the twin principles of freedom and free enterprise all must be considered. Lastly, as discussed below, the concept of “fairness” goes hand in hand with the principle of equality.
The method of Principle Based Politics is to identify the decision to be made, determine all of the principles that apply, consider which control most strongly, analyze the range of potential outcomes the principles require when properly balanced, and then make the decision according to this analysis. Equality, like our other principles, must be applied with care. But equality cannot be ignored.
We all have recited the fairness rule since childhood: “Fair is fair.” By the way, is all really fair in love and war, as we also learned as a child? One future blogger, at the age of four, argued by counter-analogy that having to go to bed earlier than his seven-year-old sister was “unfair and triangle” notwithstanding the ageist, though more conventional shape-based point asserted by his parents.
What your blogger did not understand until recently, however, is that the same original Greek word translated into our word equality can also be translated as fairness.* The concepts of equality and fairness are that closely related, which may explain why an equality discussion is not simple when applied to an issue like taxation in the above example. There must be a sense of fairness imbedded in any policy for treatment truly to be equal.
*We see this in the Bible’s New Testament, which was written in Greek. Coincidentally apropos to our discussion of tax policy, in urging generosity by the relatively wealthy, 2 Corinthians 8:13-14 says: “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their [i.e., the poor’s] need….” The original Greek word isotes translated here as fairness could also have meant equality.
Written by Quentin R. Wittrock, founder of Principle Based Politics.
Look for his posts twice each week, as this blog will explore and promote the idea of principle in politics, both as to individual elected leaders and our federal government as an institution.
This month, we are expounding on the following government principles:
- Equality: Governments must treat all people equally and fairly.
- Freedom and free enterprise: Liberty and freedom of the people and free markets should be purposes of government.
- Transparency: Telling the people the truth, openly, is the best way to govern.
- Law and Justice: Upholding the law and Constitution, justly, is an essential governmental function.
- Protecting the vulnerable: A necessary role of the government is to protect those in true need.
- Religious freedom and separation: All must be free to worship, but church and state should remain separate.
- Limited government: The federal government should do only what others cannot.