Radley Balko is one of the best when it comes to detailing the evils of the drug war and the U.S. legal system as a whole. And he's also linked to me a couple times, so it's obvious the guy has good taste. But when he writes outside of his field of specialty, Balko regrettably comes across all too often as your standard right-winger, as in a recent post wherein he complains, as he often has over the years, that poor people aren't paying their fair share of taxes -- an argument that, merits aside, seems a damn fine way to ensure his brand of libertarianism remains politically marginal and, when it is noticed, lampooned as little more than conservatism for pot heads.
As a libertarian, Balko bases his tax-the-poor stance not on a concern over the government's ability to fund programs he'd like to do away with, of course, but out of a fear that because many poor Americans do not pay federal income taxes, "we’ll soon have a majority of people who pay no tax voting for more and more government services they benefit from, but don’t have to pay for." Implicit in this is the apparent belief that the dramatic rise in government spending and the national debt over the past few decades is explained by poor people voting into office politicians who keep giving them more and more of other peoples' money – and voting out those who don't; in other words, the standard conservative narrative of the parasitic, layabout masses bleeding dry the productive, wealth-producing John Galts.
That narrative, however, is what political scientists colloquially refer to as “fucking bullshit.” Contrary to what conservatives love to allege and big government-loving liberals would love to believe, the majority of what the state collects every April 15 goes not to poor, drug-addicted welfare mothers, but to blowing up poor mothers and their children on the other side of the globe with bombs purchased from very wealthy military contractors. While the bulk of state spending is indeed on Medicare and Social Security – the bread to go along with the circus of publicly financed stadiums – those programs are funded, as Balko acknowledges, by direct, regressive taxes that, yes, even poor people pay.
The majority of income taxes, on the other hand, goes directly to the Pentagon and the legion of quasi-private corporations that make up the military-industrial complex, a fact that ought to make someone who has built a career chronicling abuses of state power -- abuses that disproportionately affect the poor -- queasy at the mere thought of expanding the government's tax base. And as you may recall, it was Wall Street bankers, not welfare mothers, who politicians rushed to hand billions in taxpayer dollars – and trillions more after taking into account the Federal Reserve's printing press – when the economy took a nosedive in 2008 following the burst of a housing bubble inflated at the behest of said bankers and at the expense of the foreclosed upon poor.
When it comes to reaping riches from evermore “government services," it's not the poor that people like Balko ought to fear, but the wealthy elite. Beyond just direct handouts in the form of tax credits and bailouts, the capitalist class benefits from state interventions that are often hard to even quantify, from “intellectual property” laws that guarantee big pharmaceutical giants and software companies monopoly profits to corporate personhood and its attendant “limited liability, which shields firms like BP and Chiquita from the full fiscal and legal liability of their actions.
Right-wing libertarians like Balko are useful critics of state power, often being some of the only voices speaking out against the outrages of the racist war on drugs and the latest and greatest “humanitarian” war, liberals typically being too busy denouncing the most recent Outrage! from Glenn Beck. But by perpetuating the notion that the state is beholden to the poor masses rather than, as history suggests, those with the most money, they demonstrate a seriously lacking -- and superficial -- theory of government and for whom its power serves.
As for me, when it comes to casting blame for the growth of state power and the threat of its expansion in the future, I'm going to look to the guy whose finances are in a shelter, not his belongings.
(See the follow-up here.)