Moral posturing on economic matters is always risky. When it works it tends to do so because, as with most populist arguments, it appeals to some combination of greed, envy, and/or fear.
This doesn’t mean, I’d hasten to add, that economics and morality are divorced from each other. Like the rest of my life, economic decisions are subject to moral scrutiny and criticism. Like in other areas of my life, my economic decisions can be virtuous or sinful.
That said, paying taxes doesn’t have the same moral weight as the obligation I have to care for my family. To my family, I owe a debt of love. To the tax collector, on the other hand, I owe a debt of justice.
Contrary to what Senator Warren would have us believe (see video), Donald Trump’s “fair share” in taxes is same as it is for everyone else: it’s what the law says it is and not a penny more. Moreover, if the tax laws of my nation allow me to reduce my tax burden either through deductions (e.g., the mortgage interest deduction) or by sheltering a portion of my income (say in a tax-deferred retirement savings account), it is just—fair to use Warren’s word—for me to do so. The only way it is unfair for someone to minimize his or her tax burden according to what the law allows is if the law itself is unfair.
This maybe the situation in Trump’s case but this isn’t the argument that is being made. Again, as long as things are done within the limits of the law—and those laws are themselves just—it is fair to pay as little tax as one possible can.
While it is in my economic best interest to pay as little tax as the law allows, this doesn’t mean my actions are unfair. Why? Because minimizing my tax bill is more than mere naked self-interest.
I owe a morally weightier debt of love to my family (and to myself), it is not only fair for me to reduce my tax burden, I’m obligated to do so. And again, as long as I stay within the law.
Failure to take advantage the means that the law allows for reducing my tax burden is both unjust (because I give the government more than is due) and uncharitable. Overpayment of taxes is something like spending money on alcohol rather than on food for my children; both are sins against charity.
I’ve not seen the Senator’s tax return but I imagine that, like Trump, she takes all the deductions allowed by law. If she takes those deductions than, by her own logic, Senator Warren isn’t paying her “fair share” either.
Like I said, economics matters are—and should be—subject to moral analysis. Failure to do so is harmful both to the individual and the common good.
But equally harmful, is the all too common tendency (on both the Left AND the Right) to substitute moral posturing for serious reflection.