Friday, August 10, 2012

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates then, and the Romney-Obama debates now?

Recently Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate Majority Leader, spoke to reporters about his being told that Republican presidential candidate Romney had not paid income taxes for a number of years. Curiously, the reply was, “prove it.” It set off a dust storm – with variations in moisture content – but should not obscure what is an important opportunity for national shaping, now, as a century and a half ago.

First of all, it needs to be stipulated what the occasion of the payment of taxes is NOT about.

We have been informed by Mrs. Romney, I believe, that Mitt served as governor of Massachusetts without taking pay. She remarked that he is a generous man. Very believable. He also served the public good, I suspect, in the same way when he re-organized the Salt Lake City Olympics. Certain the payment of taxes, in general, is not an issue: real estate, for instance - car licenses, that sort of thing.

What is at issue, pure and simple, is the right not to release one’s internal revenue forms, even if one is running for the presidency. Especially, perhaps, is that it focuses on a necessarily debatable principle. When you get down to bedrock, who owns your money, your tax forms, you, me.

To delineate what is at stake, by way of principle, I would like to refer you to Justice, What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael J. Sandel. It is a part of a series of his philosophical lectures given at Harvard; they may also be found as a Public Broadcasting System series and you may also google them there. His book was on the New York Times best sellers list and you may have come across it in that way. I ran into these originally as a part of our Wednesday Nite Discussion Group at church. You may want to have your book club or church school group to explore it, especially the first chapters dealing with these two extreme positions, individual choice versus community. 

Sandel is a philosopher and his discussion of the libertarian position – which may be attributed to Romney, in regard to taxes and individual liberties – and that of the utilitarian – which may be attributed to Obama, in regard to taxes and fairness – is extremely interesting. The debate as to which of these positions dominate in our national life is a crucial one. It affects gun control legislation, universal national service, and birth control issues, among other discussables. We really got into it with our Friday morning book discussion group. 

When you can have fun talking about taxes, you know things are up-scale for you.

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