A reader writes:

As a liberal, I don't have any problem acknowledging that many of the wealthy people in our society have worked hard to earn what they have. What I question is whether their financial rewards are proportionate to their work, given that the creation of wealth is the product of collaborative efforts far more often than it is the product of individual acts of genius. What I also question is why conservatives so often forget that many people of ability work very hard and do not accrue such wealth. If it is a question of hard work, tell me Andrew - who works harder than a single mother employed at Wal-Mart?

I don't deny that. But if an entrepreneur works just as hard but because he's smarter or more driven or more innovative, I think he deserves as much of his rewards as is compatible with a basic safety net and core public goods. After all, he is the person whose success makes taxation possible at all - or rather far more successful than if there were only Wal-Mart workers. But I am content with inequality as the price of freedom, and do not believe the government should punish people for being successful. Another writes:

While I agree that liberals should give more credit to the value of hard work in becoming successful, more conservatives should give more credit to the myriad other factors that either enable or detract from success.

The obvious one that most liberals point out is cultural/societal influences, but the one I would highlight is the conditions put in place by a developed country’s government. The rich are able to make their money, whether it’s from inheritance or hard work, because of the security, infrastructure, research, education, patent enforcement, etc. that the government provides, and they should be responsible for providing funding for these services in the future if they are deriving the vast majority of the benefits from their provision.

No less a conservative figure than Ben Stein has highlighted this. In a column in the NYT a few years ago, he wrote, in reference to raising taxes during wartime:

But if they are superrich, they derive special benefits from life in the United States that the nonrich don't. For one thing, they can make the money in a safe environment, which is not true for the rich in many countries. It is just common decency that they should pay much higher income taxes than they do. Taxes for the rich are lower than they have been since at least World War II that is to say, in 60 years.

This makes no sense in a world at war, in a nation with so many unmet social needs, in a nation with so many people without health care, in a nation running immense and endless deficits.

But I agree! I favor a return to Clinton era tax rates for the successful because we need to find some money somewhere and the hike is not that bad, given the debt we face. I'd like tax simplification and an end to the myriad loopholes and deductions in the tax code that the rich pay lawyers to exploit. I believe in an estate tax, in order to reward work not nepotism. I've made the same point about paying for the wars and supported the health insurance reform. I just think that wealthy seniors should pay more for Medicare and that social security could easily be means-tested and that the retirement age be raised. Not because I hate the old, but because we have to do something, or go into default. The successful already pay the bulk of the taxes. I just don't see why tax hikes should be framed as some kind of revenge on them, or long-overdue comeuppance. It's a necessary evil for the common good. And many liberals would fare better if they made their case that way, as, I might add, Obama generally does.

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