We can lack control because we are constrained by external forces--we can be enslaved or imprisoned or coerced by a despotic government. The Constitution of the United States is a framework for enabling freedom. At the outset, the Constitution did not perfectly provide formal freedom--the freedom enabled by government institutions--to all segments of our population. Freedoms were unjustly restricted based on race, color, gender. The history of our country has been marked by a history of extending formal freedom to ever-increasing segments of our population.
Formal freedom has never translated to actual freedom immediately. Even after the Constitution was amended to eliminate slavery and extend basic civil rights to people of color and, later, to women, those rights were denied and restricted by informal social mechanisms, domestic terrorism, and procedures specifically designed to obstruct the actual practice of basic freedoms by targeted groups. For these groups, the basic freedoms only became real in practice when sufficient numbers of individuals in society accepted and stood up for the rights of the targeted groups. In other words, the structures of our government enabled freedoms, but only individual behaviors made them real.
And it is also true that, while we cannot buy time, we can buy more control over the time we have. We can buy the services of other people to do tasks we would rather not do, giving us more choice in how we spend our time. In other words, we can buy more freedom. To a certain extent, if your ability to buy more freedom is strictly a function of your positive individual choices and behaviors, I say good for you.
But none of us are strictly a product of our individual choices and behaviors--we all inherit resources or liabilities from our parents. And to the extent that your ability to enjoy more freedom than others is a function of systemic inequality, I say the government has a role in lessening the disparity between the freedom enjoyed by the wealthiest and the freedom allowed to the poorest. That is what the beginning of the Constitution means: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
We cannot say that our government is living up to its constitutional mandates to establish justice and secure the blessings of liberty if it enables too great a disparity between rich and poor. Such a disparity is no less than a disparity between the freedom of the wealthiest and the freedom of the poorest. That disparity violates the letter and spirit of the Constitution, at least to the extent that it is a function of systemic inequality rather than individual merit.
This is not an argument for communism or for any naive utopian concept of economic equality--those philosophies remove the incentive for individual choices and behaviors that are the engine of a productive human society. It is, however, an argument for reasonable constraints on capitalism. Such constraints clearly include a progressive income tax. The purpose of such a tax is to narrow the inequalities in the initial conditions between children born to the rich and children born to the poor.
In his classic book, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls offers the most elegant defense of this idea. He states it as follows: "Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged to that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity." (Rawls, p. 83) Progressive income taxes support Rawls' vision as well as the purposed enumerated at the beginning of the Constitution. Progressive taxes do not take away from the freedom of rich children, who do not choose or earn the circumstances of their birth families. They can, however, enhance the freedom of poor children by giving those born to the poorest parents a reasonably level playing field from which to exercise the power of individual choice.
Even though we live in a society that maintains a facade of progressive income taxes, we do not actually enforce those taxes. That is why Senator Romney pays 15 percent of his income in taxes [disclosed in the 2016 campaign and reported in the Salt Lake Tribune] when his actual tax bracket requires something more along the lines of a 34 percent tax payment. For at least the past forty years or so, we have followed a path of empowering an aristocracy of hereditary wealth that is inconsistent with the principles of our Constitution. Ironically, the increasing disparity between rich and poor is reducing the incentives for constructive individual choices and behaviors at both ends of the spectrum.
Constructive individual behavior is key to the freedom of others in society, but it is also the key to our own personal freedom. Destructive behaviors can trap us in the slavery of addiction, debt or hate. These forms of slavery affect all of us without regard for color, race, gender or economic status. We can only liberate ourselves from these forms of self-imposed slavery by making wise choices, and a lot of those choices have to do with how we spend our time.
There are, of course, other factors in our imperfect society. I have argued in this essay for the government's role in mitigating matters of health and circumstance that overwhelm the power of individual choice. I wish you all freedom from such circumstance. I wish you all the opportunity to leverage the power of your choices in the coming year to give yourselves the greatest possible freedom. I wish you all the satisfaction of knowing, on the next New Year's Day, that you have spent your time as wisely as possible in 2019.