Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

Tax Your Children Well

December 21st, 2004 · No Comments

So, in general I agree with—and have often been a source of—criticism of this administration’s tax shifts in the guise of tax cuts. Spending ultimately has to be paid for eventually, so if you cut taxes and keep on spending, you’re ultimately committed to taxing someone sooner or later to cover the tab. And on “let not the sins of the father” kind of grounds I’ve tended to think it’s worse, other things equal, to saddle our kids with obligations they had no part in choosing than to pay for our goodies up front, so that at least we can see how much our free lunch costs. Diffuse costs and concentrated benefits may create all sorts of collective action problems when it comes to constraining wealth transfers within a generation, but there’s few interest groups as unlikely to organize effectively as the not-yet-conceived.

However. It occurs to me that there are arguments, in at least some contexts, that would appear to weigh in favor of saddling our grandkids with some debt. First, there are some kinds of spending whose primary benificiaries are future generations. I had the thought in terms of up-front financing to fix entitlement programs, but if that’s too contentious, say we’re talking about basic scientific research or long-term infrastructure projects. (If you’re against government doing that sort of stuff at all, just humor me for a moment and pretend that you aren’t, since it seems unlikely to go away soon in any event.)

Add to that this consideration: On fairly conservative assumptions about technological progress and economic growth, your kids (if you’re my age) are going to enjoy a much better—possibly fantastically better—standard of living than all but the most affluent of this generation, just for having the good sense to be born a little later. Now, past some minimal threshhold, it’s not obvious to me that any given generation owes it to the succeeding one to leave them in a much better position (though perhaps not to leave them worse off). It seems like, in terms of the tradeoff between present consumption and investment, there’s a reasonably wide range of morally admissible mixes. So why not, as it were, redistribute (predistribute?) from the (as yet nonexistent) better off future Americans to the present, even if we’re not talking about stuff with long term benefits?

Now, I’m partly just playing devil’s advocate here; I’m not sure to what extent I actually buy either argument, and can think of various obvious rejoinders. Still, seems like there’s probably something to it…

Tags: Uncategorized