The United States of America was founded on the idea that individuals have rights which society cannot take from them for the benefit of other people. In America, you have the right to your life, your liberty and your property. You have these rights as an individual, regardless of membership -- or lack of it -- in a group or family or party. Simply because you are alive and in the United States of America, you have fundamental rights.
The United States government can't arbitrarily pick out individuals and declare that their rights ought to be infringed. It can't exercise arbitrary power at all. Everything it does has to be consistent with "due process of law," which means there are consistent, regular procedures for enforcing the laws passed by the elected representatives of the people of the United States. And everyone is entitled to the "equal protection" of the law, which means the government can't designate certain classes of people or random individuals for special penalties that don't apply to everybody else.
This is the formula that makes the United States a free country.
In contrast, consider this alternative philosophy of government:
"It is thus necessary that the individual should finally come to realize that his own ego is of no importance in comparison with the existence of his nation; that the position of the individual ego is conditioned solely by the interests of the nation as a whole...that above all the unity of a nation's spirit and will are worth far more than the freedom of the spirit and will of an individual."
Guess who said that.
That's what you risk when you stop protecting the rights of individuals. Once you accept the idea that individual freedom is less important than the needs of the nation as a whole, there's nothing to stop an Adolf Hitler or a Joseph Stalin or any would-be dictator from rising to absolute power.
If it can't happen here, it's only because the U.S. Constitution stops the government from revoking the rights of selected individuals. That's why the Constitution matters. It protects individual rights, and that's the only thing that keeps us free.
It is in this context that President Obama's remarks in Roanoke, Virginia, last Friday are so disturbing.
"If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own," the president contended. "You didn’t get there on your own. I'm always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business -- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet."
What is he saying, and why is he saying it?
He is saying the nation as a whole has a claim on the property of some individuals.
He is saying it because he wants you to support a policy of higher tax rates on some people, combined with a policy of "refundable" tax credits for other people, resulting in a government-forced transfer of property from some individuals to others.
This policy amounts to income redistribution through the tax code, concealed from public view by laws that protect the privacy of individual tax returns. Plenty of people know about it, though, as you can see from the meteoric rise of tax-related identity theft. "Thieves can file a fraudulent return either by claiming false income or false dependents, and request that a refund be deposited onto a prepaid debit card," BusinessWeek reported in May. The "refund" is not a refund of excessive taxes paid, but a check from the taxpayers, paid out to anyone who files a tax return showing the right combination of income and dependents. The stated income can be unverifiable cash. The dependents can be the tax filer's children, nieces and nephews, or imaginary creations. The check can total $6,000 or more.
How much money is redistributed this way?
The Inspector General of the Internal Revenue Service reported that in 2010, $4.2 billion was paid in "refundable" Additional Child Tax Credits to people who filed tax returns without Social Security numbers.
That's just for the Additional Child Tax Credit. It doesn't include the money paid out of the Treasury for the Child Tax Credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit, or other refundable tax credits for education and the like. And it's just for people who filed with ITINs, Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers which are given to people who file tax returns but don't have Social Security numbers -- people who are working in the country illegally.
The IRS says 2.3 million ITIN-filers claimed the Additional Child Tax Credit in 2010, and the U.S. Treasury cut checks to them totaling $4.2 billion of other people's money.
If the Treasury paid $4.2 billion just for illegal workers claiming the Additional Child Tax Credit in 2010, how much did it pay for illegal workers claiming other refundable tax credits? And how much did it pay to everybody else who claimed refundable tax credits?
Our government has created an entitlement to other people's money. Roughly half the country currently pays no federal income tax at all, and a substantial proportion of that group looks forward to a "tax refund" check every year, courtesy of the other half of the country.
The half that pays is getting pretty cranky about it. People who own small businesses and work from six in the morning until ten at night were not too happy to hear the President of the United States tell them that "somebody else" deserves their money more than they do. The National Federation of Independent Businesses called the president's remarks "unfortunate" and said they show "an utter lack of understanding and appreciation for the people who take a huge personal risk and work endless hours to start a business and create jobs."
President Obama has proposed extending the so-called "Bush tax cuts," but only for people who earn less than $250,000 per year. He would like to raise tax rates on people who earn more. Republicans have pointed out that these higher tax rates would hammer small business owners who report their income on individual tax returns.
So the president is out to prove that small business owners are not entitled to the money they earn. "If you've got a business -- you didn't build that," he said Friday. "Somebody else made that happen."
He's getting some help from the reliably liberal Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, which conducted a survey over the weekend to gauge support for the president's proposal. "By two-to-one (44% to 22%), the public says that raising taxes on incomes above $250,000 would help the economy rather than hurt it," Pew concluded. "Moreover, an identical percentage (44%) says a tax increase on higher incomes would make the tax system more fair, while just 21% say it would make the system less fair."
Fair to whom? Fair to the people who are receiving "tax refund" checks without paying taxes? Fair to the people who are paying taxes without receiving tax refund checks? Fair to "the nation as a whole" at the expense of selected individuals?
Pew reached its conclusions based on a survey of 1,015 adults -- not registered voters or likely voters -- and "weighted" the results to match the "gender, age, education, race, Hispanic origin and region" of the population according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Additionally, Pew's researchers warn that "question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls."
In other words, they called a lot of people who don't necessarily vote and suggested to them that the purpose of the tax code is to "help the economy" and promote fairness. And still they could only get 44% to support the president's proposal.
It's tough to sell socialism in a country that was custom-built for freedom. Tough, but not impossible. We're all responsible for protecting the rights of individuals from those who would like to get them out of the way.
Susan Shelley was a Republican candidate for Congress in the 30th District in the June 2012 election. She's the author of "How the First Amendment Came to Protect Topless Dancing," a modern history of the Bill of Rights. Follow her on Twitter @Susan_Shelley and on Facebook.