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Are We Hardwired to Love Taxes?

November 15, 2010

Jonah Lehrer in WSJ Books:

no secret that nobody enjoys paying taxes. The real question is how much of the bitter medicine we can tolerate—and what our society needs. This is especially clear when Congress debates changes in the tax code, like the current controversy over whether to renew the 2003 Bush tax cuts. Though both parties want to keep the cuts for households making less than $250,000 a year, Republicans want to retain the cuts for richer households, so that the wealthiest Americans also get to keep an extra 4% of their income.

The conservative argument is straightforward: The tax increase will make the rich feel poorer, which will lead to a reduction in consumption and investment. Given the fragility of the economic recovery, that’s a dangerous possibility.

But will this happen? How do the wealthy actually respond to the redistribution of wealth? These questions are politically relevant, of course, but they also cut to the core of an ongoing debate about human nature. We typically see ourselves as selfish creatures, driven by our genes to maximize pleasure. We don’t like taxes because they leave us with less to spend on ourselves. In recent years, however, psychologists and neuroscientists have begun dismantling this view of human behavior. We may not be altruistic angels, but neither are we depraved primates. One of the most surprising findings is that people have a natural aversion to inequality. [More]

 

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