Some very angry rhetoric from Stephen King:

Those who have received much must be obligated to pay – not to give, not to “cut a check and shut up,” in Governor Christie’s words, but to pay – in the same proportion.

Putting aside all debate about the feasibility and economic impact of raising taxes on the rich, I suspect that here in Mr. King’s op-ed lies one of the key differences in mindset between two opposing viewpoints.

“Those who have received much,” King says, ought to pay more. Note the word choice. Not earned, but received. It’s difficult to argue that someone is obligated to give up what he or she has earned – but much easier to demand that someone pay out of what he or she has been given.

The difference is more than rhetorical – it describes two very different worldviews: one (right-leaning) which emphasizes the contribution of the individual, and the other (left-leaning) which emphasizes the contribution of society. If the individual is primarily responsible for his own wealth, then he has little obligation to “pay in the same proportion” – except as dictated by his own personal convictions. On the other hand, if an individual’s wealth is primarily given to him by society, then he is absolutely obligated to give back in return.

Both viewpoints are perfectly reasonable (contrary to what Mr. King’s passionate rhetoric would have us believe), but they begin from different premises and thus inevitably reach different conclusions.

I don’t want you to apologize for being rich; I want you to acknowledge that in America, we all should have to pay our fair share.

And this is precisely the point: the idea of one’s “fair share” depends heavily on where one believes that wealth comes from. As Jonathan Haidt reports, research on why people share shows that:

The “share-the-spoils” button is not pressed by the mere existence of inequality. It is pressed when two or more people collaborated to produce a gain. Once the button is pressed in both brains, both parties willingly and effortlessly share.

Willingly and effortlessly. Contrast that with the pitched battle going on today. Psychologically speaking, the reticence of today’s rich to “share the marbles” is rooted in the belief that their wealth did not come from collaboration with society as a whole, and thus they are already paying more than their “fair share” in taxes. So long as that belief persists, pontificating – as Mr. King and others do – about the situation leads to plenty of anger but zero (and quite possibly negative) progress.

Mr. Haidt notes that:

Unfortunately, President Obama promised he would not raise taxes on anyone but the rich. He and other Democrats have also vowed to “protect seniors” from cuts, even though seniors receive the vast majority of entitlement dollars. The president is therefore in the unenviable position of arguing that we’re in big trouble and so a small percentage of people will have to give more, but most people will be protected from sacrifice. This appeal misses the shared-sacrifice button completely. It also fails to push the share-the-spoils button.

In other words, you can’t solve the inequality problem by pitting the rich against the poor and turning fellow citizens into bitter enemies. You can’t win by antagonizing the other side. You don’t get people to share by calling them names or accusing them of all being corrupt, greedy criminals.

Back to Mr. King here:

Last year during the Occupy movement, the conservatives who oppose tax equality saw the first real ripples of discontent. Their response was either Marie Antoinette (“Let them eat cake”) or Ebenezer Scrooge (“Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”). Short-sighted, gentlemen. Very short-sighted. If this situation isn’t fairly addressed, last year’s protests will just be the beginning. Scrooge changed his tune after the ghosts visited him. Marie Antoinette, on the other hand, lost her head.

Of course, I don’t believe that Mr. King is truly calling for violent rebellion à la the French Revolution, or for beheading those who opposing raising taxes on the rich. He’s clearly making a rhetorical point. But seriously – this sort of rhetoric really undermines the whole appeal to shared sacrifice and fairness that he claims to represent. Incendiary language does nothing but inflame one side and enrage the other. Cathartic, maybe. Productive? Hardly.

If you believe that wealth is more given than earned, fine. But you won’t convince people to share your views by telling them how wrong and morally bankrupt they are.

If you want people to act like family, then you have to treat them like family. And if you preach that we are all in the same boat, that we are one nation, one society, and accountable for helping one another, then you had better be the first to act like it. That means treating people with respect – even if they disagree with you. Even if they’re richer than you.