This post and the subsequent discussion at Reason demonstrate the behavior that I discussed in my Tale of Two Poverties post, i.e., leftists often advance two contradictory models of the same behavior depending on the argument they need to sell at any particular moment.
In this case we see two instances of the behavior in the Obama’s advocacy of increased tobacco taxes, as described in the article, and then in the comments we see reliably leftist commenter “Joe” calling payroll taxes a regressive “tax”.
First, tobacco. Back when they fought for the infamous tobacco settlement and in today’s [sic] “Truth” ads, leftists placed the blame for tobacco use squarely on the backs of tobacco companies. Leftists make two arguments to demonstrate the companies’ culpability. (1) Tobacco is highly physically addictive. Once a person starts they are largely powerless to stop. (2) Marketing by tobacco companies makes smoking look so desirable that it effectively subverts an individual’s ability to choose not to smoke. In this model of smoking, tobacco users are hapless victims of evil companies. This justified forcing the companies to pay billions (to state governments, not smokers) in compensation and forcing them to alter their marketing to keep from brainwashing people.
When it comes to raising taxes to pay for programs that politically benefit leftists, they advance an entirely different model. In this model, smoking is a freely chosen vice. Individuals chose to do something destructive to themselves and others and they can stop anytime they wish. Therefore, taxing them not only helps the smoker by inducing him to quit, it compensates society for the harm that smokers choose to inflict on the community.
If you use the tobacco-settlement model of how people come to smoke in the raising-taxes model, or reverse that and apply the taxes model to the tobacco settlement, each policy becomes unjust. If tobacco companies compel people to acquire an addiction so strong they cannot voluntarily break it, then raising taxes on tobacco cruelly exploits helpless people. It would be akin to unjustly imprisoning people and then charging them for their food. Conversely, if people can choose when to start and stop smoking, then the tobacco companies bear no special responsibility for the consequences of smoking. If you look at both models together, then either the tobacco settlement or tobacco taxes are unjust and exploitive.
Second, Social Security (SS) and payroll “taxes”. When leftists oppose SS privatization they argue that SS represents a solid “investment” for workers. They argue that since the government guarantees future SS payouts, workers will reliably receive a higher rate of return than they can with private plans. They take great pains to drive home the point that a worker will get back every dime he puts into Social Security plus interest. They claim SS is fair because payouts depend on how much a person contributes over his working life. SS, they say, is simply a compulsory government pension system whose benefits rebound to those who contribute. They term the compulsory payments, “contributions”, the same word used to describe private pension payments.
When leftists oppose cuts or advocate increases in non-payroll taxes, they argue that SS is a regressive tax that forces them to carry the burden of supporting the elderly and disabled while getting nothing in return. They argue that the worker’s contributions for SS should be deducted from his share of the overall tax burden because of this burden. They lose the “contributions” talk and instead talk of regressive “taxation”.
If you use the pension model in the regressive-tax argument, or vice versa, you get nonsensical results. SS as a pension plan produces the same result as a compulsory system that forces people to buy government bonds that would not mature until the holder retired. Clearly, a person with a stack of treasury bonds has something that a person who just paid income tax does not. In SS, individuals get an individual return plus some. With other taxes, you get only the same generalized benefit that everyone receives regardless of how much they pay. A billionaire and a poor person both have an equal right to drive down the same roads even though the billionaire pays a great deal for the road’s creation and upkeep and the poor person pays very little.
Leftists will in the course of a single conversation claim that SS is a great benefit to workers and then claim that it represents an unfair burden on workers, merely by swapping models of SS.
The only constant in these dual-model arguments lays in who benefits if the electorate believes each particular model at the time the leftists argue for that model. In both tobacco models, leftists get money to pay for votes for themselves and to increase the public’s dependency on themselves. Ditto for each SS model. They choose which model to advance at any given time depending on how it benefits them and the politicians and political groups they identify with.