The comment was a quick one — a by-golly insistence that despite paying a relatively low tax rate on his vast income, the millions he has given to charity show that he’s not a greedy guy.
But experts who research public attitudes on philanthropy on both sides of the political spectrum said it was an inadvertently revealing moment, a brief window into the deep philosophical differences between how liberals and conservatives view government and society.
“Taxes are a form a of charity,” said Michael Tanner, a scholar at the Cato Institute who has studied philanthropy, explaining the conservative viewpoint. “If we think of the point of taxes, it’s not to be punitive. We tax people because there’s some use, some public good, for which they’re needed.”
He added that one reason a conservative such as Romney aims to push tax rates down is a fundamental belief that individuals make better choices about what society needs than government does: “A conservative might say, ‘I know of something in my local community where my dollars might serve a better purpose.’ ”
The flip side of the argument, the liberal side, is that the point of government is to provide a way for citizens to decide together what society needs and to get those things done.
“This is really the fundamental disagreement,” said Garrett Gruener, the founder of Ask.com, who advocates higher taxes for himself and other ultra-wealthy individuals as part of the group Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength.
“Democracy is not a charity. It’s an enterprise of all Americans to accomplish things that we democratically decide are important,” he said. “Charity is something I do on my own, and I don’t expect others to have the same priorities I do.”
Romney is one of the wealthiest Americans ever to represent a major party in a presidential race, and his personal finances have been under a political microscope. Democrats argue that his effective tax rate — 13.9 percent in 2010 — is an illustration of federal policies that favor the wealthy, making breaks available to those who can pay accountants to find them and taxing investment income at a lower rate than wages.
He has also been under pressure from Democrats to release more information about his taxes. So far, he has released only his return from 2010, and he said he will make public his 2011 return.
No less than 13 percent
During a news conference Thursday, he insisted that in the past 10 years, he has not paid a federal income tax rate of less than 13 percent. He made the statement after Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said he had been told that Romney had managed to avoid paying federal income taxes for 10 years.
“I think the most recent year is 13.6 or something like that,” Romney said.