While Mitt Romney has released his recent tax returns, he has taken considerable heat for not releasing more of them. While it is no surprise that the Democrats have been pushing Romney on this, some conservatives have also urged Romney to release these returns.
Romney’s view seems to be that he has done what is required and his wife said that they have “given all you people need to know.” This does raise a legitimate question about what voters have the right to know about candidates. While presidential contenders have historically released tax returns covering many years, Romney is not violating any laws by refusing to release the tax returns in question. Assuming that the law defines what voters have the right to know, then the voters have no right to know the content of these returns. Of course, what people have a right to know (as defined by the law) and what people need to know can be two distinct things. After all, in order to properly assess the candidates, voters might claim to need information that the candidates are not legally obligated to share. For example, some people wanted to know a great deal about Obama and desired to see his college transcripts. In the case of Romney, some voters seem to think they need to know about these tax returns. However, the mere fact that voters want to know or think they need to know something does not entail that they actually have a legitimate need to know it. That is, that they have a right to know. While politicians can legitimately be expected to provide more information to the public than a typical citizen, they do not surrender their privacy completely. As such, there is still a legitimate question of whether the public has a legitimate need to know about these tax returns.
Given that other presidential candidates have released extensive tax records, it does seem well established that there is legitimate expectation on the part of voters that they will have access to such information. Of course, it could be countered that this is a mere tradition and has no moral weight. That is, the fact that other candidates (including Romney’s father) released their returns does not entail that the voters have a right to see Romney’s tax returns-even if they would be relevant in making their voting decision.
Naturally, it could be argued that Romney has tacitly made the tax returns a matter of legitimate public concern. After all, much of his case for why he should be president is based on his success in business. If the voters are to properly assess Romney’s business competence, the voters need access to these financial records. As such, it could be argued that Romney has given voters a legitimate need to know about these returns. As such, the voters do not have all they need to know and the returns should be released.
Romney has also argued that he does not want to release them because the Democrats would go through them looking for material with which to attack Romney. As the Democrats see it, this means that the tax returns must contain things that would give them plenty of ammunition against Romney. As Romney sees it, the Democrats will twist and misuse the returns to make him look bad. As such, he seems to think he is better off taking the criticism for not releasing the returns than sustaining the damage that would result from releasing them.
On the one hand, it could be contended that Romney has a legitimate point. If there is nothing bad in his tax returns, but the Democrats will be able to somehow manufacture ammunition from this nothing, then releasing them would unjustly damage him. On the other hand, it can be contended that this reply is rather dubious. After all, if there is nothing bad in the tax returns, then the Democrats would simply be making things up if they said bad things about the returns-something they could do with or without the actual returns. To be fair to Romney, pundits and spinners are often able to twist innocuous things to make them look terrible. For example, pundits on the right have managed to do this sort of thing to Obama even when he released what was demanded, such as his birth certificate. However, there is the rather important question of whether or not there is anything bad in the returns and it does seem that voters have a right to know about this.
Some of Romney’s fellow Republicans are urging him to release the tax returns, mainly because of the damage that his making an issue of this is doing to his campaign. Given that Obama has released several years of tax returns, it does make Romney look bad, especially since a beloved narrative on the right has been that Obama is a keeper of secrets. While people are generally not consistent in politics, Romney’s secrecy in this matter is not playing well even among those who are not fans of Obama. After all, it is natural to infer that if someone is keeping something secret, what is being concealed must be worse for the person than the damage done by people knowing they are keeping secrets. By keeping the returns secret, Romney invites speculation and causes people to wonder what terrible secrets he is hiding. This is, obviously enough, not a good strategy. Unless, of course, what is being concealed really is so bad that keeping it secret is preferable.
It is unlikely that the tax returns contain anything incredibly dire, such as evidence of criminal activity. While this is mere speculation, I suspect that the returns show that Romney made vast amounts of money and made use of every loophole and trick to pay as little taxes as possible. Since most people try to do the same (that is, pay as little as possible) and everyone knows Romney is rich, there must be something that the returns will show that would be damaging in some way. Speculating once again, I think that the problem might be that Romney’s tax returns would provide the Democrats with vivid ammunition against the Republican narrative that the job creators are over-taxed. After all, if Romney’s people were able to work the existing laws to keep Romney’s taxes rather low, this would enable the Democrats to point directly to Romney as evidence that the rich are underpaying rather than overpaying.
There might be other things on the tax returns, such as Swiss bank accounts, that would also provide the Democrats with considerable political ammunition to use to counter the Republican narratives about taxes, job creators and wealth. Of course, most of this would merely confirm what people already know: Romney is very rich and no doubt does all the sorts of things that rich people do that less affluent people cannot. However, the tax returns might provide such clear evidence of class disparity in America that they would actually hurt Romney’s chances. Or perhaps not. After all, people already know that Romney is exceptionally rich and upper class and he seems to be doing well despite (or perhaps because) of this.