Building a bridge to the 18th century

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said he was only making “a historical observation” during a House Judiciary Committee hearing, but what an observation it was.

“[T]here was a time in American history when you had to be a male property owner in order to vote. The reason for that was, because they wanted the people who voted — that set the public policy, that decided on the taxes and the spending — to have some skin in the game.

“Now we have data out there that shows that 47 percent of American households don’t pay taxes, 51 percent of American wage-earners don’t have an income tax liability. And it’s pretty clear that there are a lot of people who are not in the workforce at all…. I don’t think they’re paying taxes. But many of them are voting. And when they vote, they vote for more government benefits. […]

“What if that were transferred into a society like today and it were [only] taxpayers that were voting?”

When elected officials look back longingly at 18th century voting laws, there’s a problem.

Actually, there’s more than one problem. Just at the surface, King is lying. When he says, for example, that “47 percent of American households don’t pay taxes,” that’s just demonstrably wrong. In case anyone’s forgotten, the relevant details matter: millions of Americans may be exempt from income taxes, but they still pay sales taxes, state taxes, local taxes, Social Security taxes, Medicare/Medicaid taxes, and in many instances, property taxes. It’s not as if these folks are getting away with something — the existing tax structure leaves them out of the income tax system because they don’t make enough money to qualify. Indeed, many are retirees who can’t earn an income because they’re no longer in the workforce.

Even putting that aside, isn’t the notion of basing voting rights on the size of one’s tax bill the kind of thing Americans should find offensive in the 21st century?

But it’s this “skin in the game” line that seems to have the most political salience. A growing number of Republican officials — including, by the way, Mitt Romney — believe that those who can afford to pay the least should be taxed more.

It seems like the sort of debate the parties should take to the nation. I imagine a lot of voters would be fascinated by the fact that the Republican mainstream maintains that those with the least ought to shoulder more of the tax burden.