Bobby Jindal wants to destroy conservatives' greatest tax legacy

The 2016 candidate is hawking an exceptionally misguided tax plan

Bobby Jindal
(Image credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Everything that Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has done since embarking on his presidential campaign has been inexplicable. Jindal, who has a justifiable reputation as a policy wonk, brags that he is "the only candidate with detailed policies on health care, energy, education, and defense." This might be true. The problem is that most of these policies happen to be bad.

But Jindal's recently-released tax plan might just take the cake.

The plan is premised on a gross injustice: that over half of Americans don't pay federal income tax. This is not just an economic issue, Jindal's thinking goes, it's a political, even philosophical one — Americans who don't pay federal income tax don't have "skin in the game" of government. Because they don't bear the cost of government, they are more likely to irresponsibly vote for expansive programs, so paying at least some federal income tax is a part of responsible citizenship. This idea has some traction on the right — it was behind Mitt Romney's infamous 47 percent remark, which he probably said at least as much because he thought that's what donors wanted to hear than because he believed it.

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There are so many reasons why this is an absolutely boneheaded idea.

The first, obviously, is the politics. Jindal's tax plan cuts rates for high earners and raises it on the smallest earners. In other words, it takes from the poor to give to the rich. Jindal has seen what Romney's "47 percent" remark did to his campaign and thinks, "Yeah, the next GOP candidate should really double down on that." Good luck.

(Incidentally, while I certainly oppose excessive redistribution and the economic logic behind redistribution, it's also not crazy, as a conservative, to believe that the growing sense that the game is rigged in favor of the rich is corrosive to the social order. The problem, of course, has lots to do with crony capitalism rather than the evils of free enterprise, but the point is that a Republican candidate who comes out with a plan that raises taxes on the poor and cuts it on the rich certainly isn't going to alleviate this growing sense of inequality of opportunity.)

The second is the fact that Americans who don't pay federal income tax still pay taxes — sales tax, payroll tax, property tax (particularly in the case of the elderly), and so on. So the "skin in the game" idea is a total non sequitur.

Moreover, there's simply no evidence that not paying federal income tax leads you to think government can just hand out free money. Everybody, regardless of their tax burdens, understands that the federal government has a large deficit and a large debt, though they might disagree what to do about it.

But most importantly for conservatives: Why do nearly half of Americans not pay federal income tax? Is it some liberal conspiracy?

Nope. It's the legacy of the conservative movement. It's waves of tax-cutting under Presidents Reagan and Bush that got us here. They're the ones who took millions of Americans off the tax rolls — and bragged about it while they were doing it.

And rightly so!

Maybe I'm crazy, but I thought conservatives were about cutting taxes, not raising them. Conservatives should be proud of their history of cutting taxes, and on cutting them not just for the rich, but for all Americans — particularly on middle-class and working-class Americans.

When conservatives see that 47 percent of Americans don't pay any federal income tax, they should stand up and proudly say, "That's right! And you're welcome."

And if Bobby Jindal wants to destroy one of the greatest tax-cutting legacies of the conservative movement — one hard-earned over many decades of tough political fights — he shouldn't expect the support of conservatives.

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Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a writer and fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His writing has appeared at Forbes, The Atlantic, First Things, Commentary Magazine, The Daily Beast, The Federalist, Quartz, and other places. He lives in Paris with his beloved wife and daughter.