Scion of Tax Consumers: My Calhounian Class Autobiography
By Bryan Caplan
I was born into a family of tax consumers. My father was an engineer for a defense contractor during the last decades of the Cold War. My mom was a substitute teacher for the public schools, though she did spend a year working full-time at a Catholic school.
We were not entirely insulated from the market – my parents invested in real estate. My dad ran a small antique cars business on the side. But the large majority of our income came from government – federal, state, and local. And aside from a year of private school to avoid being bussed, my K-12 schooling was entirely supplied by the public sector.
My status as a tax consumer continued during my undergraduate years at UC Berkeley. Since I was a Regents scholar, I received an even larger subsidy from the state of California than the typical UC student.
During my Ph.D. program at Princeton, I spent four years employed by what one could technically call “the private sector.” You would never know the university was private from being there, though. If anything, the lack of a bottom line and sense of entitlement were more prominent than at Berkeley. Once I graduated, I became an employee of the state of Virginia’s George Mason University, which eventually gave me a job for life.
Since my wife is a corporate lawyer, most of my family income officially comes from the private sector. But few private sector professions profit as much from expansive government as lawyers do. Anyone can see that plaintiffs’ lawyers for antitrust cases benefit from the existence of antitrust; a little reflection reveals that defendants’ lawyers for antitrust benefit as well; on further reflection, it is clear that increasing the demand for antitrust lawyers increases the demand for lawyers in general.
So how much do I actually profit from expansive government? The question is harder than it looks, because you have to keep opportunity cost in mind. A bureaucrat earning $100k per year might be able to get an equal salary in the private sector. If tax cuts eliminated his position, his after-tax salary would actually rise as a result! In my case, though, it’s hard to deny that I really am a net beneficiary. I greatly enjoy being a professor, so if government cut its subsidies for education, I wouldn’t readily flee to a more lucrative occupation. In any case, I’m almost middle-aged; starting a new career at this point would be both costly and stressful.
How has my Calhounian class background affected my beliefs about the world? In truth, it’s hard to see how it has. Even before I knew a thing about economics or libertarianism, I never thought of myself as playing for the “government team.” My next book argues that government subsidies for education are a big waste of money.
Growing up, there were obvious – though mostly apolitical – differences in attitude between kids from rich versus poor families. But it’s hard to recall any attitudinal difference – political or otherwise – between kids from “tax consumer” versus “tax producer” families. (Of course, my introspection is fallible – if I can find some good data, I’ll followup with a few simple statistical tests).
Not convinced? Suppose someone from a rich family wanted to marry someone from a poor family. Even today, it is easy to believe that the rich parents (and maybe even the poor parents) would resist. “Were not snobs, but…” In contrast, suppose that someone from a rich entrepreneurial family wanted to marry someone from a rich bureaucratic family. It’s hard to imagine anyone seriously pointing out the “divide,” much less using it as an argument against a union.
Ultimately, then, while regular “class analysis” seems oversold, Calhounian class analysis seems almost irrelevant in modern America. Objectively speaking, tax consumers and tax producers may have a lot to fight about. But subjectively speaking, it’s a rare person who even notices.