Taxes: What Should they Buy?

Fourth in a four-part series on taxes.

Taxes are theft!” judges one reader of this humble blog, and more than a few libertarians would agree with him. As near as I can tell, this judgment is based on a view of man as a completely autonomous individual, dependent on no one but himself, answerable to no one, and subject to compulsion by no one. Under this view, to the degree that taxes are compelled they cannot be just.

My problem with this view is that it does not describe any man or woman I have actually met. Every person of my acquaintance emerges not from autonomy, but from dependence. We are all called into being by the ready-made community of the family. Most of what we are comes not by an individual “consumerchoice but by gift. Along with the gift of family, there are the gifts of language, nationality, religion, community, city, state, and nation. Our values are socially formed by these gifts of social context and only after that formation do we find ourselves in a position to accept or reject these received values. What “freedom” we have consists mostly in decisions about how to use the gifts we are given; how to re-arrange them and pass them on. Our very being itself turns out to be already a “being-in-community” which mirrors in some fashion that ultimate community of persons that is at the root of all being, namely the Trinity. At their most basic level, humans are social beings, already formed by institutions “outside” themselves.

And since man is a social being he has social obligations; the gift demands a return if it is to survive to the next generation. Hence, each man has obligations which may, in certain circumstances, be compelled of him. Individual goods are themselves the product of social goods and are dependent upon such social goods; if there is a break-down in the social goods, no individual goods will survive. We are all dependent upon each other; the common good precedes any individual good. A philosophy of pure individualism contradicts the social nature of man. Clearly, there are common goods which no individual (or very few) could provide by themselves. The obvious example is the common defense, but there are others, and they are normally supported by taxation.

But if this rule of the common good gives us the ground for legitimate taxation, it also gives us the ground for judging when taxes are illegitimate. For if the legitimate purpose of taxes are to pay for those things necessary for the common good, then taxes are illegitimate when they purchase not the common good, but individual and particular goods. That is, when good money is taken from all to provide goodies for a few, goodies not connected with the common good, then they are illegitimate.

When we examine the actual expenditures of the modern state, we have ample grounds for questioning whether all of this money, or even most of it, goes to the common good, or are just private goods paid for by the commons. And while we should never (in my opinion) proclaim that “All taxes are theft!” we have more than ample grounds for shouting, “Most taxes are theft!” The one-word difference is crucial.

Of course, there can be different judgments on what constitutes the common good. But there can be no doubt that the system of special bills for special friends (“earmarks”) which burden every budget bill are nothing but theft. And even things that fall in the common good can be used in such a way that much of the money goes for other purposes. For example, we certainly do need an army for defense, but does our defense really require troops stationed in more than 130 countries? Certainly there are private contractors on whom the military is dependent, but do we really need the army of parasites and mercenaries provided by Halliburton and Blackwater? I tend to doubt it.

To take another random example, we can note farm subsidies. Now, a secure food supply is in the common good. As someone who likes to eat three or more times a day, I want to see secure and prosperous farmers, as my own security depends on them. Further, I have no objection (and much praise) for a fund which insures the farmer against the vicissitudes of the weather and the market, since the farmer himself cannot control these things. This fund ought to be largely supported and controlled by the farmers themselves, and it is not unjust if this fund receives a contribution from the general taxes, or at least, from those tax-payers who actually eat. But the current system is not an insurance program at all, but a subsidy, and one not so much to the “farmer” as to the giant “agri-businesses” such as Archer-Daniels-Midland and the like.

Further, we can note that not every common good needs to be paid for by general taxes. Take transportation, for example. Certainly it is a common good, and a prosperous people need a good transportation system. However, it turns out that most expenditures for particular forms of transportation constitute a subsidy for private persons. We build highways, but the only ones who can use them are those who can afford the high capital costs and operating expenses of an automobile. And when we invest so much public money in highways, we privilege one group of users over another, and force people to buy a car whether or not they want to, or whether or not it makes economic sense for them to do so. Now, its not that I think the government should get out of the transportation business; there are good arguments for public roads, since every particular route would have to be a monopoly anyway; you could not efficiently have two competing roads operating on the same route. However, these roads should be paid for by user fees (tolls) and not by general taxation. Indeed, subsidizing the roadways turns out to be both contradictory and self-defeating (see Free Markets, Free-ways, and Falling Bridges.)

We can also note areas where the free market has proven itself incompetent. Modern medicine is one of these areas. Indeed, so long as we are talking about a market that is so dependent on licenses and patents, there cannot be, even in principle, a free market at all (see Sicko-phancy!) We did have a free market in medicine, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it was a disaster. Hence, there is ample justification for a public system of health care. The specific taxes applied to this can certainly be debated. I will not here enter into that debate, but I will merely note that such a system ought to be supported by taxes dedicated to that purpose, such that if the costs rise, the public will have instant feedback via an increase in those specific taxes.

Our other big problem is retirement funds. Now, in days gone by, there were two sources of social security: have a lot of money or have a lot of children. We have made the latter unfashionable and the former damned near impossible (median wages haven't risen in 30 years). As a practical matter, we cannot do away with the system in any near term without causing social chaos (besides, the old folks vote.) Nevertheless, the system itself is not sustainable and in reality constitutes a surtax on labor incomes that is now used to support the general fund. In other words, it is just an additional income tax on one class of workers but not on others (see Social Insecurity.)

Looking over the budget as a whole, it is my unscientific judgment that at least one-third to one-half of the expenditures are for things that are mere subsidies, or that could be moved from the general taxes to special funds and user-fees. Hence taxes could be cut, conservatively speaking, by one-third to one-half, and could be done without harming, and indeed improving, things that really contribute to the common good. However, cutting taxes depends entirely on cutting expenditures. Candidates don't like to talk about cutting expenditures because each cut cuts into a constituency, either one that contributes a lot money or a lot of votes. We are left with vague promises of cutting “waste, fraud, and abuse” only to see all three increase. Or we get nonsense like Huckabee's “revenue neutral” plan, which on inspection turns out to be “all taxes on the rich are theft; everybody else pays 30%.” And all will end up continuing the program of borrowing to pay for “tax cuts” while spending like drunken sailors. Such “cuts” are not cuts at all, since borrowing is not tax-cutting but tax-shifting; taxes are shifted from the current generation to the next one. We are, quite literally, spending our children's money.

It is unfortunate that Ron Paul, the only actual Republican in the race, has taken the “all taxes are theft line.” It is not merely that it prevents him from getting elected (since most sensible people don't believe that), but more importantly it prevents him from speaking about the more important issue, namely, insisting one fiscal discipline. Spending only as much as you take in, and spending it only for the common good. That platform might actually win, if backed with sufficient funds for a credible campaign. But win or lose, it would certainly be a great moment of political education.

27 comments:

P.M.Lawrence Sunday, December 30, 2007 at 5:11:00 AM CST  

Mr. Médaille, I'm sure it is inadvertent, but you appear to have so misdirected yourself, or been misinformed, that your presentation of others' position amounts to a straw man. You also make certain unwarranted assumptions without examining them fully. I hope you will forgive me if I go into these at some length.

'“Taxes are theft!” judges one reader of this humble blog, and more than a few libertarians would agree with him. As near as I can tell, this judgment is based on a view of man as a completely autonomous individual, dependent on no one but himself, answerable to no one, and subject to compulsion by no one.'

That second sentence is wrong. It is not at all necessary to suppose that "man [is] a completely autonomous individual", etc., to come to this view. It is possible to start from a much simpler view, that some things are mine, and that there are things that, even if they are arguably not mine, are certainly not yours; these things are at the very least under my stewardship. Then for you to take them without my consent is, by definition, theft. All one needs to infer that tax is theft is to notice that my consent is not obtained and that the things taken were at the very least under my control, and often were mine. What this view involves is the idea that I do the deciding - but it does not require self-centredness or a claim to autonomy, though of course it allows far more of the latter - needs more, to function properly - than the subjugation of one's will, one's very self, to another allows.

Notice that so far I have not even needed to address any claim to authority of the taxer, any more than one needs to identify someone breaking in to infer impropriety. I will come to those issues in due course. But the area of philosophy we are tapping into is given away by the terms used, such as property, proper, propriety, self and so on which are all linked to the idea of what constitutes, is part of and necessary to, a person having any autonomy. Even if (say) a teddy bear is not inherently necessary to a child, once it is his it becomes so; taking it is theft, even in a child's eyes.

But for the sake of argument, let's see where the rest of that enquiry into objectors takes us.

'Every person of my acquaintance emerges not from autonomy, but from dependence... Our very being itself turns out to be already a “being-in-community” which mirrors in some fashion that ultimate community of persons that is at the root of all being, namely the Trinity.'

Even stipulating all that, it immediately falls over on the next two sentences it leads us insensibly towards: 'At their most basic level, humans are social beings, already formed by institutions “outside” themselves. And since man is a social being he has social obligations; the gift demands a return if it is to survive to the next generation.'

The first of those two sentences is only true if we use such a loose meaning of "social" that it covers a multitude of meanings. In fact it is only true in the same sense that a cat is a social animal; more for some cats than for others, and in varying amounts in different phases of life. When you use words so loosely, you can hide a false syllogism like "a penny is a coin; a shilling is a coin; therefore a penny is a shilling", because you are using the same word for each of the three. With that it appears to be a truism like "a rose is a rose is a rose".

And that is precisely what happens in the second sentence I quoted. By pounding together the words "being" and "obligations" under the heading "social", you conjure up a false congruity. Surely "gift demands a return" should tell you, if not numbed by now, that this is no gift at all? I have heard the saying "Indian giver" - and in fact this isn't that, so it is improper (there's a key word again) to demand at all. As for "...if it is to survive to the next generation", that is pragmatic. It does not in and of itself supply a justification (even if true; in his "Kreutzer Sonata" Tolstoy argued against it!), rather it transmits any justification found elsewhere - but that has not been presented.

Again, none of this so far touches on what makes a tax a tax; it is couched in terms of men and Man, with the taxer not yet making an appearance. Since it is so general, I think I can best close this area by citing, not as authority but as illustration, something that some very devout men came up with to highlight this area; it is very important to read both parts of the 38th Article of the Church of England: "Of Christian Men's Goods, which are not common.
The Riches and Goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same; as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast. Notwithstanding, every man ought, of such things as he possesseth, liberally to give alms to the poor, according to his ability".

You can see where that attitude and mindset - far from Libertarian - leaves "Hence, each man has obligations which may, in certain circumstances, be compelled of him", but there is more. While necessity may excuse, it cannot justify. Even supposing all that, it would be no less a theft (I know that in this I differ from certain Catholic authorities; but my intention here is not to persuade but to show how someone of good will and good reason can still come to this conclusion).

But now you come to taxes proper. (I'm labouring these key words, because they flag deep waters.) Consider "But if this rule of the common good gives us the ground for legitimate taxation, it also gives us the ground for judging when taxes are illegitimate. For if the legitimate purpose of taxes are to pay for those things necessary for the common good, then taxes are illegitimate when they purchase not the common good, but individual and particular goods."

Do you see how far off course you have come, when I compare and contrast this with "Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's"? By your rule, you cannot get to that; indeed, according to that much of what is God's should be given to Caesar, and Caesar does not have any right to some of the things that he was actually allowed in the earlier ruling.

Let us continue, but now from scriptural authority (atheists, agnostics and miscellaneous others may take it as illustration, and casuists may find what they will).

Jesus's saying on the matter was, as so often, both a specific retort to his inquisitors and an opening of thought rather than a ready-reckoner answer to the wider topic. It does not beg but rather raises the question, what is God's and what is Caesar's (or, for that matter, mine)? What it does not do is, deny that what is mine is mine.

With this valuable starting point, we can look at some historical cases. One thing the Romans did not do was claim that they were doing anything other than taking tribute from the conquered. In fact, recognising both the justice and the practicality of matters - from a Roman point of view, of course - they abolished almost all taxes on Romans from shortly after the decline of Carthage until well into the Empire - let the subject peoples pay, and if justification they wanted let them consult Athens's reply to Malos.

Which one did they keep? Purely nominal in amount but hugely important symbolically, it was a tax for the upkeep of the temples. The point wasn't that this couldn't be paid by others just as easily, it was the symbolic nexus, the social obligations - a membership fee for Romanitas, in which religion was still religio, from binding together.

From a Roman point of view - and I cannot fault the logic - it was of the nature of a membership fee, and anybody who claimed to be Roman was consenting to it. Yet this was precisely what a Christian could not do, before Romanitas changed, as many martyrs bore witness; it was giving what was God's.

These and these only are the sorts of tax that are not thieving under a false guise: the ones - few that they are - to which we truly do consent, and those that are taking what truly was Caesar's and neither or own nor our own in trust (which last category neatly defeats any attempt to equate paying tax with keeping a trust, and shows autonomy is not the only ground for objection). You have to test the case, of course, and not presume that what is taxed is Caesar's.

I shall not leave this vague but give an example. Land taxes are theft, but rents paid to the state are not where the land truly does belong to the state - something that may well have been the case, where the state was there first and did not transfer the land. Merely calling land tax ground rent - as has been done in some countries - is putting a gloss over seizing ownership, of course (see the ryotvary system in the British Raj).

So much for principle, philosophy and justification. I will remark in passing that I myself have considered ways of reducing needs for funding, some covered at my publications page, e.g. how to wind back pension provision and funding "fairly" (not meaning that any of it is fair as such, but paths of lesser evil leading to none, Pareto optimality fashion). As for a final destination, ignoring for the moment any question of other grounds for holding state action illegitimate, states can be funded without taxes by the means described above, using a domain of revenue yielding taxes regularly rebalanced by creating fiat money kept from depreciating by using a sinking fund strategy. Such a thing would not in itself involve theft, though many ways of getting there from here would - and on a grand scale.

P.M.Lawrence Sunday, December 30, 2007 at 5:23:00 AM CST  

Drat - mind blur. I meant to end with "...using a domain of revenue yielding assets...", not "...using a domain of revenue yielding taxes...", and I had "...or own..." for "...our own..." and maybe some other typos too.

John Kindley Sunday, December 30, 2007 at 2:52:00 PM CST  

John:

Your premise, that man is by nature and essence a social animal and derives his very existence and identity from the family and culture which he is born into, which I accept, does not itself legitimize and create obligations to the State as we know it. A man indeed has natural moral obligations to his family, assuming his family was good to him. He must furthermore endeavor to love his neighbor as himself. The bonds of friendship likewise create natural obligations, and in our "connected" world such associations can be created among people geographically very distant from one another, even from different countries. Beyond that, preferring the stranger on the next block (or even the friend if contrary to justice) over the foreigner is a dubious sentiment, akin to the pernicious nationalisms which created such havoc in the last century.

The more local the government, the less objectionable its unilateral demands and commands are, because actual participation in the local community's decisions is more possible, and actual consent to its decisions can be inferred from the relative ease with which one can move out of the community or can avoid moving into it in the first place. For this reason, I don't have a real problem with unlibertarian measures such as income taxes or the outlawing of topless bars being enacted at the local level, since the members of that local community remain free to vote with their feet (I myself, e.g., prefer to live in a "drug-free" community without a red-light district). This local level, moreover, seems to be the level at which your observations about the social nature of man and its attendant naturally-arising social obligations seem most pertinent and on point. By contrast, our state and federal governments as we've known them seem to impose themselves inorganically upon citizens from "on high," despite our American myths about "representation." The manner in which States, including the U.S., have historically arisen bear this out. The State, obviously, is not a person, to whom we can have meaningful moral obligations. On the other hand, we can create moral obligations to others (even others whom we have not met) through contract and actual consent.

The rest of this comment is a blog post I wrote a while back titled "Why be a libertarian?":

The libertarian political attitude is expressed concisely in the motto endorsed by Henry David Thoreau at the beginning of his essay Civil Disobedience -- "That government is best which governs least." Its central tenets are the principle of self-ownership and the principle of non-aggression, which holds that the initiation or threat of physical force or fraud upon persons or their property, by a person or a government, is illegitimate. The principle of non-aggression does not preclude defending against or responding to aggression. In the words of Thomas Jefferson: "Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’, because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual," and "No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him."

The first question that must be asked about any government is: By what right does it exist in the first place, and from where does it derive its "just powers," if it indeed has any? "The positive testimony of history is that the State invariably had its origin in conquest and confiscation," observed Albert Jay Nock in his great book, Our Enemy, the State. With regard to the origin of the American State specifically, after a survey of the historical circumstances surrounding it, Nock had this to say:

"It is clear that while in the nature of things the British State's interventions upon the economic means would stir up great resentment among the interests directly concerned, they would have another effect fully as significant, if not more so, in causing those interests to look favourably on the idea of political independence. They could hardly have helped seeing the positive as well as the negative advantages that would accrue from setting up a State of their own, which they might bend to their own purposes. It takes no great amount of imagination to reconstruct the vision that appeared before them of a merchant-State clothed with the full powers of intervention and discrimination, a State which should first and last 'help business,' and which should be administered by persons of actual interest like to their own. . . .
The main conclusion, however, towards which these observations tend, is that one general frame of mind existed among the colonists with reference to the nature and primary function of the State. This frame of mind was not peculiar to them; they shared it with the beneficiaries of the merchant-State in England, and with those of the feudal State as far back as the State's history can be traced. Voltaire, surveying the debris of the feudal State, said that in essence the State is 'a device for taking money out of one set of pockets and putting it into another.' The beneficiaries of the feudal State had precisely this view, and they bequeathed it unchanged and unmodified to the actual and potential beneficiaries of the merchant-State. The colonists regarded the State primarily as an instrument whereby one might help oneself and hurt others; that is to say, first and foremost they regarded it as the organization of the political means. No other view of the State was ever held in colonial America. Romance and poetry were brought to bear on the subject in the customary way; glamorous myths about it were propagated with the customary intent; but when all came to all, nowhere in colonial America were actual practical relations with the State ever determined by any other view than this."

The Founders of the newly-born United States government, although they drafted a Constitution that allowed them and their successors to exercise the "full powers of intervention and discrimination" in furtherance of their own interests, tried to locate its legitimacy somewhere other than in raw self-interested power, i.e. in the myth of the "consent of the governed" -- a myth rigorously debunked by Lysander Spooner in his indispensable treatise, No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority.

A reasonable objection to the above considerations is this: Even if the government is illegitimate, a government is necessary, and that in a sense makes it legitimate, despite its dubious origins. There are two responses to such an objection: First, it is not at all certain that a State is necessary, and many have argued that it's not and tried to show how a Stateless society might work. (See, e.g., David D. Friedman's The Machinery of Freedom. Quakers might be particularly interested in Murry Rothbard's history of the anarchist conditions and attitudes prevalent among the Friends who colonized Pennsylvania.) Second, if necessity is going to be the justification for the existence of the State, then necessity should be the standard by which all of the State's laws and acts should be judged. If you believe a State is necessary for national defense and building roads, for example, then the only State functions such a belief justifies is national defense and building roads. It doesn't legitimate anything else that a bunch of politicians or the people who bought them into office might want to do. There's no magic in a "majority" that gives them the right to do anything that any one of them acting alone wouldn't have the right to do (with the important caveat that trial by jury and due process when available is always preferable to vigilante justice, since less subject to error and passion).

That's the crux of the matter: The government has no right to do anything to you that no other person or association of persons has a right to do, or would have a right to do in an anarchist society. No one has or would have a right to throw you in jail for victimless "crimes" like smoking marijuana or non-fraudulently giving legal advice for money without a law degree, and neither does the government, though it pretends to. In an anarchist society like that projected by David Friedman private protection agencies and mutual protection societies would fulfill (probably more effectively) the police functions monopolized by government today, and would have the right to exact restitution and punishment for assaulting or killing one of their clients or members, assuming due process. To the extent that the present government merely does the same thing -- i.e. enforce the non-aggression principle -- there is no injustice. In an anarchist society one or several of the mutual protection societies or private protection agencies would likely attain, because of the mutual need for arbitration between such organizations and defense against large-scale invasion, a position at the top of a hierarchy of such societies and agencies. All that is needed to approximate such a state of affairs is for the present federal government and more importantly the people who now prop up its pretensions and usurpations by their complacency and misplaced patriotism to begin to think of the federal government as having a status no more exalted and no more privileged than that of a private protection agency at the top of such a hierarchy, with no rights other than what it obtains by freely-entered contract and actual explicit consent.

The most obvious difference between that conception of government and the illegitimate conception of government we have now is our present acceptance of pervasive armed robbery in the form of involuntary taxation. It is not only unjust in itself but is the source of the bloating and concentration of governmental power that in turn finances all of the other governmental aggressions against the rights of the people that are now carried on. There are in fact well-known ways by which the government could fund itself without resorting to robbery and that would actually serve to remedy rather than aggravate injustice. As discussed in my post titled "Why be a left libertarian?", for example, the land (apart from any improvements on it) and other natural resources in a community and the economic rent associated therewith (as well as, arguably, the estates of decedents) belong equally to all in the community, not just to those who presently hold title and possession. Since the necessary collection and distribution of this rent could ordinarily not be administered without the agency of some kind of governmental organization, it is legitimate for that governmental body to keep that part of the revenue which is needed for its necessary services before distributing the remainder equally to the members of the community (the Georgist "single-tax").

To close with something of a corrective, Albert Jay Nock did not have only bad things to say about America's Founding Fathers. In this passage in Our Enemy, the State he regarded Thomas Jefferson as a visionary:

"What is it, [Jefferson] asks, that has 'destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all powers into one body, no matter whether of the autocrats of Russia or France, or of the aristocrats of a Venetian senate.' The secret of freedom will be found in the individual 'making himself the depository of the powers respecting himself, so far as he is competent to them, and delegating only what is beyond his competence, by a synthetical process, to higher and higher orders of functionaries, so as to trust fewer and fewer powers in proportion as the trustees become more and more oligarchical.' This idea rests on accurate observation, for we are all aware that not only the wisdom of the ordinary man, but also his interest and sentiment, have a very short radius of operation; they can not be stretched over an area of much more than township-size; and it is the acme of absurdity to suppose that any man or any body of men can arbitrarily exercise their wisdom, interest and sentiment over a state-wide or nation-wide area with any kind of success. Therefore the principle must hold that the larger the area of exercise, the fewer and more clearly defined should be the functions exercised. Moreover, 'by placing under everyone what his own eye may superintend,' there is erected the surest safeguard against usurpation of freedom. 'Where every man is a sharer in the direction of his ward-republic, or of some of the higher ones, and feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day;... he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power wrested from him by a Caesar or a Bonaparte.'"

John Médaille Sunday, December 30, 2007 at 4:45:00 PM CST  

I am fortunate in that I have received not just one, but two thoughtful replies to my post. In this post, I will respond first to Mr. Lawrence's objections. Prime among these objections is that I have ascribed a pure individualism to the libertarians which Mr. Lawrence thinks is not correct. However, the rest of the post posits a “mine” without an “ours,” and hence only confirms me in my view that we are speaking of a pure and autonomous individualism. Indeed, this issue has dogged libertarianism at least since von Mises, who wished to analyze all things in terms of methodological individualism. His student von Hayek recognized that this could never be sufficient and tried to correct his master by adding some concept of information flows. And recently I have heard from Peter Boettke, a leading Austrian economist, that Austrians are turning to the “new institutionalism” with the latter “doing all the heavy lifting.” When I asked him, “Then what happens to methodological individualism?” he replied, “Well, that's the question” and preceded to change the subject, post-haste.

I mention all this merely to point out that I am not innovating in my critique; this is a problem that has plagued libertarianism since the beginning. Mr. Lawrence criticizes my use of the term “social” as vague, but doesn't tell me what causes it to be vague, nor how I should properly use the term. Thus, I am unable to adequately respond to his point, since I do not, as yet, understand it. Perhaps he will provide some clarification.

Mr. Lawrence analyses property (quite correctly) as something “proper” to a man (or woman). I certainly agree, but that says too little, and the analysis assumes too much. For example, language is “proper” to a man, and I may properly speak of “my” language. However, this cannot mean “mine” in the sense of an exclusive possession; if it really were “mine alone” it would not be useful. Language is only useful if it is both “mine” and “ours.” In other words, in order to have utility (value), language must be both personal and social; if either element is missing, there is no language. And aside from being itself, language (even if only the language of crying) is our first real “possession.”

You might respond, “But we are speaking of physical possessions!” Oddly enough, that doesn't change the situation very much. For example, the book is properly mine because I wrote it, but it is also yours because you bought it, Continuum's because they published it, and Amazon's because they keep truckloads of it on their shelves to meet the constant and unremitting pressure of demand from a refined and discerning public. Again, we find the same elements of the personal and the social, without which “property” isn't really “proper” at all. And every kind of property will display both aspects; there will be something “proper” to the person and to the community in the same “property.” [Note to John K.: This is precisely the problem of property that Henry George is addressing by socializing ownership (via ground rent taxation) and privatizing development (by letting the owner keep all the values free of taxation.) It's an elegant solution to a knotty problem.]

Mr. Lawrence also says By pounding together the words "being" and "obligations" under the heading "social", you conjure up a false congruity. You need to elaborate on this for me, because my being is a gift, and a social one at that. I was called into being, summoned forth by my parents; it was not an “exchange.” So I do not see your objection. You have similar objection to the term “gift” itself because, you say, if it demands a return it is no gift at all. But surely, my statement is merely descriptive: we receive our being as gift, but if we do not in turn give the gift of being to others, then being stops, or at least the “being” of the human race. It is not, as you assert, “Indian-giving” because in the giving, the gift is renewed; we do not return the same “penny” we received, but one upon which we have placed our own stamp.

One final word. Pareto optimality is an inadequate description of justice. Indeed, it describes only corrective justice and makes no room for distributive justice. No real change can be effected by Pareto; a slave society must remain a slave society before and after a Pareto-optimal exchange. In truth, Pareto merely restated (in rather pompous terms) Aristotle's “justice in exchange” while ignoring his “justice in distributions.”

LYL Sunday, December 30, 2007 at 10:23:00 PM CST  

My problem with this view is that it does not describe any man or woman I have actually met.

Exactly so, John, and this reality is why the Church teaches all that it does regarding social doctrine. Marriage and family life, subsidiarity - all the important principles of social doctrine - are based upon this reality of dependence, or might we say "interdependence"?

The absurd concept of personal autonomy, now so prevalent in the west explains why things such as feminism can start out reasonably well and end up barking up the wrong tree (to the detriment of all). As for taxes, I'm inclined to think, based on the writing of one Fr E Cahill "The Framework of a Christian State" that in general families could be taxed at no greater than 10% and should never be taxed out of their necessary income. Here in Australia we have a tax-free threshold, which reflected that concept when it was introduced, but is now a mere token thanks to inflation. Ideally it would be increased to a reasonable level for families and individuals and after that the taxes could kick in.

Libertarians wrongly assume - it seems to me - that philanthropy or charity will make up for any wants in the community. But I don't think this can be entirely relied upon. God knows, I don't want a guvvermint sticking its nose in where it ought not, but I'm definitely in favour of a certain amount of governance and public expenditure.

P.M.Lawrence Monday, December 31, 2007 at 12:15:00 AM CST  

"Prime among these objections is that I have ascribed a pure individualism to the libertarians which Mr. Lawrence thinks is not correct." No, merely sequentially earliest.

'However, the rest of the post posits a “mine” without an “ours,” and hence only confirms me in my view that we are speaking of a pure and autonomous individualism.' No it does not posit it, it merely presents it in a concrete way using "me" as an example, leaving any "ours" implied - or so I thought - to be reached through the individual's free will and conscience (if you - the specific Mr. Médaille - had not objected, I would have written "my free will and conscience" just there). "...even if they are arguably not mine, are certainly not yours; these things are at the very least under my stewardship" is a construction that uses the concept "me" as a standing place, but it reaches beyond "me".

Mr. Médaille already knows of mutualism, that Kevin Carson covers here. Other readers might want to follow up just how that shows free and association coming together. But since "I" exist, unless I am constrained and coerced I must always have a personal responsibility and connection even to construct "we". There can be no "we" without a component of "I", but that does not reduce to simple individualism except in the candid egoism of small children (for whom it makes sense even from the viewpoint of "we").

You can probably see why I didn't want to get so abstract, going over ground that mutualism and the less vulgar libertarians have already covered elsewhere.

"In other words, in order to have utility (value), language must be both personal and social; if either element is missing, there is no language." That does not happen to be the case. Language is still a tool for thought; even an isolated castaway benefits from it. I myself once worked on a Swiss farm for two months as a vacation job; nobody there spoke English, but I still gained from knowing it - I could think about what I was doing. But even if the point were correct, that would not extend to creating an authority out of the group.

'Again, we find the same elements of the personal and the social, without which “property” isn't really “proper” at all.' This comes close to asserting that the personal does not exist - in the sense of essence, giving it its nature, not in the sense of there being none to have, which latter is at least arguable in certain cases - without the social. That is nonsense on stilts; the reverse is the situation; without the personal there cannot essentially be any social, no "we" without "I".

But I see I have an implied question, what isproper, personal, etc.? I deliberately did not try to enumerate (that way casuistry lies), and I left it not so much vague as an open question, much as I pointed out that the phrase "give unto Caesar what is Caesar's" opened a line of enquiry rather than dodging a tricky point. And I thought I did state the principle which provides the specific question to be addressed in any specific case that may from time to time arise: "...the idea of what constitutes, is part of and necessary to, a person having any autonomy" - I might have written "identity", or any of a number of other things which, while not equivalent, are different points that anchor that same area. Libertarians try to use "self-ownership", which almost works, but falls short because taken to its logical conclusion that theory allows the individual to divest himself of owning himself, while he intrinsically cannot divest himself of himself any more than you can take water out of water (there is still water there). Notice, this has nothing to do with physical possession as such; it is broader.

'You need to elaborate on [By pounding together the words "being" and "obligations" under the heading "social", you conjure up a false congruity] for me, because my being is a gift, and a social one at that. I was called into being, summoned forth by my parents; it was not an “exchange.” So I do not see your objection.' Notice, you have only looked at one leg of the dichotomy; within the one meaning of "social" that is there, you find no inconsistency and suppose there is no problem. Indeed, you check to see if your "being" was an exchange, which I never suggested, as though not being guilty of something else exonerates the actual charge. No, the problem quite simply is that your existence and its relation to others is not the sort of relation to others that would be involved in incurring or accruing an obligation to others. You are creating an association of ideas in your own mind by putting the two topics under one heading, "social".

As for the rest, I take your point. I was attempting to demonstrate what happens when you place words together; you had asserted that the "gift demands", and I had pointed out - using Indian giving by way of example - that any "gift" with strings attached is no gift at all. As for the consequences of my not taking those actions, those are very real - but give you no rights in me (they are down to my conscience and free will, as illustrated by the 38th Article I quoted). Please note, "I" and "you" just there were there by way of example; it works just as well with Fred and Angus.

And, of course, my closing remarks did not imply that Pareto optimality of itself brought justice. Rather, the materials and approaches I referred to wind back certain present problems, ending up with those particualr evils eliminated. The way from here to there, though, is a transition; many people have sought to justify transitions of that sort that brought casualties in their wake by saying things like "you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs", and so on. I was using Pareto optimality to show - or so I hoped - that the transitions I had in mind would never involve even transitional or localised increases in harm. I was using that perspective to try to guide the course away from the rocks hidden by utilitarianism.

Oh, by the way, consider a concrete example: someone with Asperger's Syndrome simply does not connect with others in the ways you assume we all do, which if true of our essence might imply various things. I have tried to show that social qualities are a circumstance, incidental rather than essential (which remains true even if they are physically necessary; what we need to live is not what makes us what we are, any more than man lives by bread alone). That such people occur shows that the social aspect is not of the essence of humanity; it is an emanation, and not an emanation of everyone. The fact that it is inextricable in practice has to do with necessity, and treating it as an essential is Procrustean.

John Médaille Monday, December 31, 2007 at 11:00:00 AM CST  

For John Kindley. John, I think the issue you are really addressing (correct me if I am wrong) is not so much whether there are legitimate taxes, but whether the modern nation-state is the legitimate recipient of those taxes. That is a separate issue which needs a separate treatment. I am in complete agreement that the modern, totalizing, nation-state must be viewed, at best, with great suspicion. In this state, minor clerks wield power that would have given pause to ancient tyrants. A clerk, in the course of a day, can take away your children, your business, and examine in excruciating detail the most intimate details of your personal and business life. Worse, this authority is becoming “privatized,” as the state (which is really just the representative of the most powerful interests in society) transfers more and more of its functions to private hands.

A “proper” state is, I believe, a collection of over-lapping sovereignties: family, church, village, city, guild-hall, union, and so forth. Each of these has a “sovereignty” within its own proper domain. In the middle ages, the king's writ might run as law, but there was very little that he could actually write in the writ without bumping up against a competing authority. But the modern state is totalizing, with the legitimacy of subsidiary institutions dependent only on the sufferance of the state. Even in our supposedly “federal” system, the states really function as “departments” of the federal govmint, having only so much authority as the national govmint is willing to grant them (in violation of the constitution, I might add).

However, let me suggest that a libertarianism based on individualism aids this accumulation of power in the state, and does so in two ways. The first way is that when everybody is reduced to individual autonomy, then nothing stands between the individual and the state. There are no intervening powers to which the individual can turn. Historically, what happened is that the power of the intervening authorities was gradually broken down by the monarch, starting with the authority of the Church, and ending with the destruction of the family. Since the so-called “Enlightenment,” intermediary institutions gradually were replaced by the totalizing state, with the result that there are no other centers of authority and power to oppose the state, other than the corporations, which have in fact colonized and subverted the state.

The second way in which a certain sort of libertarianism aids the growth of the state is to provide arguments for “privatization” which refers everything to the market. However, doing so puts the powers of the state beyond the politics of the state and the inherent power of the people. And it is simply untrue that such things are privatized. For example, even a “private” police force derives its legitimacy from a court system that cannot be privatized without falling into absurdity. Further, even if you did privatize police powers, you would still need a public police to protect us from the private police. Do you really want our streets patrolled by Blackwater? I know where you can find such a place. Do you really want to turn over defense to Halliburton? Richard Cheney will agree. In reality, this is a recipe for warlordism. Alas, it is actually taking place before our eyes.

My basic problem with libertarianism as we most often see it is that it lacks a coherent social and political theory, preferring to refer everything to the market. But this inverts the right order of things; the market itself is dependent on proper social and political arrangements, and must not be allowed to overstep its bounds. This lack of social theory is especially pronounced since Mises's methodological individualism. Mutalism makes a stab at a coherent theory, but I believe it falls short. The main thing is to get everything in the right order. I believe this can only be done if there is distributive justice in the ownership of the means of production. But if, on the other hand, property is concentrated, then no other institution can stand, for as Daniel Webster noted, power follows property, and where property is in the hands of the few, power must reside their as well.

John Médaille Monday, December 31, 2007 at 11:33:00 AM CST  

For P. M. Lawrence. I think the essence of our disagreement comes in your statement [my post] merely presents it in a concrete way using "me" as an example, leaving any "ours" implied - or so I thought - to be reached through the individual's free will and conscience... Here I disagree because the “ours” is prior to the “me”; our free will only determines the quality of the relationship, not the fact of that relationship; we are in relationship whether we will to be so or no.

As for language, yes, we do conduct an interior dialogue, but we do so in natural language; in order to make a thought intelligible to ourselves, it will have to be the kind of thought that we can, in principle, make intelligible to others. We could invent private words, but even the invention would betray us. For example, we could say to ourselves, “from now on, when I refer to a dog, I will use the term gozorninplatz.” Fine, except by referring it to a shared word (“dog”) we already defeat our purpose, presuming we had an actual purpose.

You say, the problem quite simply is that your existence and its relation to others is not the sort of relation to others that would be involved in incurring or accruing an obligation to others. Here I must strongly disagree. Existence in general and personhood in particular are relational and that relations do involve obligations. And these relations are not “freely choosen,” at least not initially. I did not choose my name, my family, my language, my nationality, and so forth. I may later chose other names and other languages, but only by incurring new obligations.

As for Asperger's syndrome, it is clearly a pathology, and it is incorrect to draw general conclusions from a particular pathology.

John Médaille Monday, December 31, 2007 at 11:39:00 AM CST  

LYL says The absurd concept of personal autonomy, now so prevalent in the west explains why things such as feminism can start out reasonably well and end up barking up the wrong tree (to the detriment of all). Personal autonomy is, in my opinion, not natural but super-natural. It occurs only in the moral realm, and is the ability to stand against the world, if necessary, in the freedom of one's conscience. It is a participation in the life of God. But it is not natural; it comes from grace and is reached by practicing the virtues.

P.M.Lawrence Monday, December 31, 2007 at 4:41:00 PM CST  

'Here I disagree because the “ours” is prior to the “me”'.

Note that you cannot even access this except via "I". It is a worked example of only being able to generate and comprehend "we" if you start with "I". Note also that it doesn't end with "I". The true meaning of "man is the measure of mankind" is that man is the measuring device, not the standard - and you cannot use "we" without that sort of stasrting point. So "we" is not prior, and any attempt to override (by way of example) my connections is a violation of my conscience (and his, and hers, etc.).

No, on language I meant I use English inside myself and it remains useful even without anyone else. I wasn't suggesting that I could generate my own language without others, but that once I had it it was independently useful. My mother had to use French to do arithmetic even in English speaking surroundings; it still worked. Notice also, your own presentation assumes what it seeks to prove, by its repeated use of "we". (By the way, note that the process 'For example, we could say to ourselves, “from now on, when I refer to a dog, I will use the term gozorninplatz.”' wouldn't be used in a purely invented private language; one could equally say "...when I refer to one of those [pointing]...".)

"Existence in general and personhood in particular are relational and that relations do involve obligations." That is a non sequitur, since (as I have pointed out) you are making a confusion of words, calling the first sort the same as the second sort and supposing that as the first exists the second - being the same - does too. But even the premise is false; Robinson Crusoe may have a stunted existence until Man Friday arrives, but he still exists (and remember, the fictional Robinson Crusoe had a real original, Alexander Selkirk, who never had a Man Friday - that was a fictional foil for dramatic purposes).

As for "incurring new obligations", how so, without assuming what you seek to prove? It may be more convenient to do enter into that sort of connection, but on occasion people have chosen a hermit life. This shows that it is incidental and not essential - even if the convenience amounted to necessity.

"As for Asperger's syndrome, it is clearly a pathology," correct, but...

..."and it is incorrect to draw general conclusions from a particular pathology."

That is not the case here.

First, medical science does use pathologies in precisely this way, with care as data, to build up patterns for inductive reasoning. Asperger's Syndrome is currently making researchers check the hypothesis that it is an "extreme variant of male behaviour", which would illuminate the condition of more usual behaviours. Many pathologies have been used in just this way.

However, I was using that in another way, one related to deduction: as a counter-example. If someone presents a general theory A, and has in mind (a, b, c, ...) at the time, if someone else notices that it is broad enough to cover a particular p but fails, then A as presently formulated is false.

People with Asperger's Syndrome are particular counter-examples to the general theory "it is an essential part of being human to connect socially". They are human and do not, Q.E.D.

Or would you prefer a line of reasoning that leads ineluctably to the idea that people with Asperger's Syndrome are not "truly" human? The same line of reasoning asserts that foetuses aren't, and you can probably see why that is of more than academic interest.

Turning aside to one of your other replies, there is a mistake arising from seeking a justification for subjection in "...when everybody is reduced to individual autonomy, then nothing stands between the individual and the state. There are no intervening powers to which the individual can turn." But that latter expedient is precisely how most states arose and sought to justify themselves in the first place, as saviours from oppressors! By accepting that reasoning as an essential and not as incidental to rescue, you anoint the rescuer as your owner (even if the yoke is light at first). The argument is, jump or be pushed, suicide is better than being killed painfully and therefore good.

Using that approach as a reductio ad absurdum, I could work through any description of a "proper" state, changing words that implied justification to ones that only implied expedience, and end up with the idea that a state ought to disclaim any legitimacy, having only arisen as a response to man's fallibility (which they all did). The "proper" sphere of connection reduces to the individual, from which all others are built up - logically posterior.

John Kindley Monday, December 31, 2007 at 4:56:00 PM CST  

John:

I note that in the following statement everything you list as being a proper component of a proper state has the nature of a voluntary association: "A 'proper' state is, I believe, a collection of over-lapping sovereignties: family, church, village, city, guild-hall, union, and so forth."

I have reservations about the guilds and unions, however, insofar as they're conceived along the lines of, e.g., the modern bar associations, which have enlisted the power of the State to prohibit anyone (no matter how knowledgable) from giving legal advice unless they have attended three years of law school. While these "Unauthorized Practice of Law" statutes are presented as being designed to protect the public, one doesn't have to dig deep to realize their true intentions and effects: to discourage people who may have aptitude and interest in the law from entering the profession if they can't afford to attend and pay for three years of law school, to burden those who do enter the profession with largely unnecessary debt, and to maintain artificially high prices for legal services. These same intentions and effects characterize most if not all other efforts by professions and occupations to forcibly prevent the non-initiated from earning an honest living in that field unless they have satisfied certain artificial entry barriers.

There is nothing unjust about being compelled to pay dues to an organization or society (including a village or even a city) to which you voluntarily belong, as a condition of continued membership. You can leave if you want to. Your fellow villagers moreover are less likely than larger involuntary organizations to burden you with onerous and unfair taxes, particularly since you presumably may actively participate in the political life and decisions of your community.

The very nature of taxes, however, are that they are involuntary. That's what makes them objectionable and characterizable as "theft" or more accurately "armed robbery." It's much harder to leave the state or the country in which you grew up. And why should you have to? You have as much right to your country as the government.

National defense, however, as well as the adjudications of disputes between constituent states (which otherwise might get out of hand), does remain the biggest sticking point for the would-be anarchist. If you just left it up to the various cities and villages to voluntary sign up and pay for national defense you'd have a large free-rider problem. (Certain anarchists have argued that it would be much more difficult for an invading force to conquer thousands of autonomous city-states than a to conquer a single central organization, but this is drifting into the realm of the very hypothetical. I raised Rothbard's and Friedman's ideas about how a Stateless society might work not necessarily because I'm convinced such a society would be viable but to make the theoretical point that the state per se has no more moral authority than the biggest mutual defense association in such a society.)

So if you're going to force people to purchase products or services whether they want them or not (i.e. national defense), no matter how justifiable, the people would be wise culturally to keep in mind the nature of what is happening -- i.e. what would otherwise be theft is justified by perceived necessity. Everything the government tries to do should likewise be judged by whether it is absolutely necessary, by whether it justifies what would otherwise be theft. A better Constitution would have spelled out what fits in the category of the necessary, and would have spelled it very narrowly. Indeed, I have a hard time thinking of anything other than national defense and appellate adjudication which could justify what would otherwise be theft. And I say that as a Quaker who has serious moral qualms with war. Even what many Democrats would consider a preferable disposition of federal funds relative to defense spending, i.e., cancer research, does not justify theft through taxation. That research should be conducted by private companies and private philanthropy.

Perhaps most importantly, recognizing the "thieving" nature of taxation should lead us to carefully consider the kinds of property that can most justifiably be taxed, or rather "stolen." I think these considerations lead directly to the Georgist "single tax" on the unimproved value of land and inheritance taxes, which arguably are taxes on what really belongs to everyone in society equally. Gift taxes and true luxury taxes are more dubious, but could be justified as a necessary measure to ultimately ensure revenue from inheritance taxes. Moreover, people who pay gift taxes and luxury taxes have freely determined and judged that in their own case they can afford to give away money or splurge on luxuries, and to that extent these taxes are voluntary. Churches traditionally have asked for only 10% as a tithe, and religion does more good and less harm than government. Seems that inheritance, gift and luxury taxes should likewise be no more than 10%. Evasion of these taxes (which still partake of the nature of theft) should not be treated as a crime, but penalized by taking some multiple of the evaded tax.

I agree with you that libertarianism is only a partial philosophy. I don't find that a reason to shy away from the label, so long as important qualifications are made. It doesn't necessarily entail an extreme individualism. Libertarianism is simply all about the non-aggression principle, which is a good principle, though man has other moral duties than simply refraining from harming others. Georgism, which likewise recognizes that income and consumption taxes are theft, also says a lot more, and is a more complete political philosophy. A full philosophy of life will give due weight to the social nature of man.

John Médaille Monday, December 31, 2007 at 7:11:00 PM CST  

For Mr. Lawrence, just a few points.

One, I don't see how pointing to the social nature of man precludes me from using "I"; what it does preclude is reducing everything to the "I" (the ego). But in point of empirical fact, we can only "be" an "I" in the first place as a result of the action of some "we" (our parents). Indeed, we can only (as a practical matter) continue in being by being in a culture. Even a Robinson Crusoe depends on cultural knowledge to survive by himself.

Two. The language of your interior dialogue is still a social language. You did not invent it; it is a social product, a cultural artifact.

Three. Relationships do involve obligations. One can point to purely parasitic relationships, to taking with no giving. So while it is possible, such relationships are generally regarded as pathological and dysfunctional.

Four, and speaking of pathologies, you cannot draw conclusions from them about the general state of man. People with pathologies are still human, but nevertheless lacking something. There are people who have lost a leg, but we can still describe man as a two-legged animal.

Finally, you say most states arose and sought to justify themselves in the first place, as saviours from oppressors! Yes, but they defined "oppression" as anything that got in the way of individualism. That's how they attacked the authority of the Church, the guild, the community, and eventually, the family. This is the whole thrust of Enlightenment philosophy.

The classic text here is Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees (1714) which was subtitled Private Vices, Publick Benefits. It was the original "greed is good" text, asserting the greed (the ultimate egotism) was the foundation of prosperity. All of modern economics is merely a commentary on this text.

John Médaille Monday, December 31, 2007 at 7:23:00 PM CST  

For John Kindley, you lay great stress on the voluntary nature of associations, but I can't see why. It certainly doesn't describe my situation and I doubt it describes yours. When did you volunteer to be a "kindley"? When did you choose to be an American (assuming you are)? As the old children's joke has it, "you can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your relatives." It appears to me that you are working off of social contract theory, but kith and kin are stronger than contract, and when you born, you were not greeted by a committee of lawyers explaining your rights and duties under the social contract, and concluding by saying "initial here...and here...and here...and sign here." You received family, country, language, culture, religion, and all your norms as a gift.

Certainly, these things are voluntary in a negative sense: you can desert your family and betray your country. You can corrupt the language and subvert the culture. But before you can do these things you must first have received them, And received them gratis.

There are things we can do with our wills, and in the secret of that private will the "I" resides. But everything it does will involve some operation on something that was first received as gift.

LYL Tuesday, January 1, 2008 at 4:06:00 AM CST  

consider a concrete example: someone with Asperger's Syndrome simply does not connect with others in the ways you assume we all do

The fact that a person may not particularly connect with others in ways the average person would, means very little. Our interdependence or interconnectedness is seen even in the case of Asperges Syndrome. Did the person with Asperges just appear, or was s/he first nurtured in their mother's womb and cared for after birth? Do such people make their own dwellings from scratch? Do they grow their own food, using implements of their own making? No. There is not one person alive who could be said to be personally autonomous (naturally speaking).

John M, you are quite right in your mentioning of our supernatural autonomy, I think.

Mel Tuesday, January 1, 2008 at 2:43:00 PM CST  

To Tonya/Lyl and John M.:

If personal autonomy is an "absurd concept" or achievable only thru a state of grace and in the realm, then why isn't chattel slavery, among non-Christians at least, as preferable as a freer state? And how can these families, communities, churches, guilds, etc, command any moral authority if no one is free to refuse membership? It seems to me that you yourselves - to cite an expression one of you used earlier - are throwing out the baby with the bath water. Certainly, personal autonomy can be taken too far - it often is, in fact - but some such concept needs to be retained, I think.

Mel

John Kindley Tuesday, January 1, 2008 at 2:54:00 PM CST  

When you're a child, your family is not a voluntary organization, granted. As I've aknowledged above, it nevertheless gives rise to moral obligations for the rest of one's life based in part on "gifts" given, despite its involuntariness. Most families, even imperfect ones, give rise to such obligations. But some abusive families deserve to deserted, if not in childhood then in adulthood. I know a woman who has not spoken to her father for years, with very good reason.

Characterizing the family, the culture, the religion, and the country which you were born into as "gifts" seems to assume an unduly favorable spin on such things. What if you were born into Scientology, or something even more cultish? (Though granted, assuming the intentions of your indoctrinators were good you might be able to characterize whatever good ideas might be in Scientology, which you kept while rejecting the rest, as "gifts.") What of people born into the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany or any of the terribly oppressive regimes that exist in the world today? Are their countries, or their governments, "gifts"? People like to compare the U.S. to such places and say aren't we lucky to be living in a "free" country, but I'd have to say that the difference is a matter of degree, and that there are real oppressions imposed upon the American people by other American people in the name of and by the instrumentality of our government. With regard to whether our government is a gift, Albert Jay Nock's Our Enemy, the State has some real insights not only into the nature of States generally but our American government in particular.

Incidentally, I think I can reasonably claim that, in my theoretical anarchism and practical (left) libertarianism, I am being particularly faithful to our common American heritage, in which Revolution plays a prominent part. The Founders, rhetorically at least, were famously skeptical and aware of the dangers posed by government. Just as it took us a couple centuries to realize that the truth that "all men are created equal" precluded slavery, we may come to realize the full implications of the truth that government derives its "just powers" from the "consent of the governed."

As Thoreau said in the last paragraph of his essay Civil Disobedience (an essay very much worth rereading periodically in its entirety):

"The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to, — for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well, — is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose, if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen."

LYL Tuesday, January 1, 2008 at 6:16:00 PM CST  

If personal autonomy is an "absurd concept" or achievable only thru a state of grace and in the realm, then why isn't chattel slavery, among non-Christians at least, as preferable as a freer state?

Slavery *is* preferable in such societies as one of the more efficient forms of economy, which is why most western nations are now some variant of Belloc's "Servile State."

However, the supernatural autonomy that John speaks of, although virtually guaranteed in a Christian framework, can be argued from natural law if we consider it to be moral in nature, rather than specifically religious. The Christian religion undoubtedly first recognised such a reality (well, I suppose the Jews did before that among their own people), but this supernatural autonomy applies to all people, since we are all moral agents.

The equality of all people is ultimately a piece of Judeo-Christian mysticism, according to Catholic blogger Mark Shea. And while he's right, imo, that doesn't mean the equality does not apply to people of all faiths and none.

The more the West leaves Christianity behind, the more we shall see the rise of new forms of slavery.

LYL Tuesday, January 1, 2008 at 6:22:00 PM CST  

Characterizing the family, the culture, the religion, and the country which you were born into as "gifts" seems to assume an unduly favorable spin on such things.

Undoubtedly some families are repulsive. It is rarely a sensible thing, however, to argue from extremes.

Most families I know personally (ie in a civilised nation among civilised people) are clearly gifts to the children thereof, though not perfect. No family is perfect, but the point is that there is no better arrangement for the upbringing of children than the family, generally speaking.

Even if one has a hideous family and justifiably leaves it, one is still demonstrably not naturally autonomous, as I showed before. I have never met anyone who could be described as such.

Extreme individualism is such a scourge upon Western nations, it must be roundly condemned and resisted at every opportunity.

John Médaille Tuesday, January 1, 2008 at 7:15:00 PM CST  

For Mel, I think you posit a false dichotomy; it is not a choice between personal autonomy and slavery, but a refusal to accept personal autonomy as a complete description of man. The most obvious fact about humans is not their autonomy, but their dependence. Autonomy is an achievement of the moral life, and relates solely to decisions about how we will employ the gifts we have been given. This is the content of our moral lives.

And John, I never said that the gifts are unambiguously good. Indeed, in a fallible world, all of them are likely to be tainted and at least some of them outright evil. Nevertheless, they are still gifts, and without them, we could not be what we are. And if the gifts were all unambiguously good, we would have no task of judging them, of modifying them before we pass them on, or of rejecting them.

Nor does moral authority depend on anyone's will. 1+1=2 whether or not anyone acknowledges it to be so. And the truth carries its own authority. If this were not so, how could we punish a single criminal unless he assented to his punishment?

John Kindley Tuesday, January 1, 2008 at 7:22:00 PM CST  

I can't help but get the feeling we're talking about two different things. Yes, I wholeheartedly agree that the family is the most important and fundamental building block of society. I further agree that the relatively rarer fact of truly abusive families doesn't change that. Moreover, I don't think of myself, despite my libertarianism, as an extreme individualist. Whether our families are truly terrible and we justly desert them or not, we are social animals and live out our entire lives in interdependence with others. The greatest commandment of all is to love God with all your being and your neighbor as yourself.

But this post and my comments have been about the specific matters of government and taxation. Those are very different matters, and yes, the involuntariness of government and taxation are probably their key distinguishing characteristic. A person who opposes those things is not necessarily anti-social and does not necessarily deny the importance of all those (voluntary) institutions like religion, professional associations, etc. that John M. spoke of. (I would indeed like to see those institutions replace most of what government does.) Many libertarians unfortunately come across that way, having taken their cue from Ayn Rand, Reason Magazine, and God knows who else. But this mindset is not what I'm talking about when I use the term "libertarian."

John Kindley Tuesday, January 1, 2008 at 7:43:00 PM CST  

John M. said: "Nor does moral authority depend on anyone's will. 1+1=2 whether or not anyone acknowledges it to be so. And the truth carries its own authority. If this were not so, how could we punish a single criminal unless he assented to his punishment?"

Absolutely right. In an anarchist society, people would have the right to prevent and punish crime based on the natural law. The consent of the criminal is not necessary. And I've acknowledged that it's in fact far preferable to have such justice carried out by a commonly known and accepted "due" process than by vigilantes or private armies. (Which is why I'm not advocating the immediate overthrow of the government but that the government becomes better and that people recognize the government for what it is, rather than hallowing it with undue reverence.) Natural law, while quite simple in its most fundamental precepts, is as varied in its applications as all the various interactions of which human beings are capable. Grounded in objective truth, it is knowable through science and human communication, and my understanding is that its elaboration was the project of the common law at its best. On the other hand, I'm very skeptical of the ability of politicians and political "majorities," fed by fiscal interests, to approximate with their legislation the dictates of natural law. Natural law is actually a pretty radical and revolutionary concept, providing a basis for each of us, by the light of our natural reason, to critique what gets passed off as law by the government. (Hopefully we exercise our natural reason with respect to natural law not in a vacuum but in conjunction with the insights of others.) I don't think putting people in jail for possessing marijuana is justified by the natural law, nor do I think income taxes are justified by the natural law.

As Thomas Aquinas said, "Every human law has just so much of the nature of law as it is derived from the law of nature. But if in any point it deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law."

Allotment Plotter Tuesday, January 1, 2008 at 9:48:00 PM CST  

Taxation is state organized theft by the communist left. Simple. Doesn't matter whether its a flat graduated or consumption tax. The more taxes are stolen from the wallet of the worker, the more drop-in Islamic Teaching centres for ex-lesbian black one legged islamic converts there are, the more statues of BVM covered in shit, the more gay pride marches, the more sodomite orientated sex ed. for five year olds.

See, the Distributists are unable to rid themselves of the Jewish inspired Cultural Marxist ideology that the State has the duty to make people equal (like beer bottles all in a row) and to make people happy / fulfilled/ consume.

IF you really want to make people happy tax them less. Steal less of their money . What taxes are needed, tax at the local level. If people want a library, they must pay for it - not have the right to bleed people a thousand miles away to pay for it. Of course bridges must be built - surely the job of peoiple who live next to the river - not a bureaucrat a thousand miles away?

The west got along just fine before income taxes were invented.In fact - the US was filled with bridges, houses and jobs from east to west, Britain expanded from a small island to an empire.

mr. belloc and Mr. Chesterton lived in a world that was income taxless - and would be horrified today to see the wickedness perpetrated by Taxation at the threat of jail time.

LYL Tuesday, January 1, 2008 at 11:04:00 PM CST  

See, the Distributists are unable to rid themselves of the Jewish inspired Cultural Marxist ideology that the State has the duty to make people equal (like beer bottles all in a row) and to make people happy / fulfilled/ consume.

Rot. Distributists wish to see an economy where every family has the opportunity to work for itself (ie provide itself with an income).

I think your observations about taxes at a local level are very good and would probably fit well with Church teaching on subsidiarity.

I think income taxes have been around for a very long time, if not in the USA, then certainly elsewhere in the world. According to Fr E Cahill, in his book "The Framework of a Christian State" historically taxes on income were usually under 10%. I'm sure most American families could stand to give up a maximum of 10% of their income.

Septeus7,  Wednesday, January 2, 2008 at 9:12:00 AM CST  

Quote from lyl: "I think income taxes have been around for a very long time, if not in the USA, then certainly elsewhere in the world. According to Fr E Cahill, in his book "The Framework of a Christian State" historically taxes on income were usually under 10%. I'm sure most American families could stand to give up a maximum of 10% of their income."

Regardless of the supposed minor cost of an income tax I think there are many reasons we wouldn't want an income tax.

1. The definition of income is ever changing and has evolved from
yesterday's tax of excess corporate profits to picking the pockets of waitresses for a percentage of their tips.

2. What government taxes it regulates and when government regulates something either discourages or controls it. Whatever arbitrary definition of income exists it is certainly derived from productive activity and an income tax would either discourage or limit production to what the government wanted. The innovative endeavors shouldn't be suppressed by taxes or the whims of government officials.

3. Income taxes unlike other forms of taxation in an growing economy are subject to increasing returns and governments will be more tempted to wage war because the source of taxation is domestic and isolated from international concerns.

4. Income taxes create government debt because government that rely on income taxes aka production taxes borrow against the productive capacity of the country based on current productivity but when excess government expenditures, bad weather, market crashes etc... lower productivity original debts cannot be paid directly and new dept is used to pay for the old debt.

If one wishes to avoid these problems and have a more just tax system which follows the distributist principles of subsidiary and the common good then I suggest tariffs and property taxes.

Why?

Property taxes are locally administered and provide for the common good aka police and fire departments. Also property taxes lower rent/mortgage prices because property taxes reduces property value.

Tariffs because it is better to control and regulate foreign goods than domestic ones and because a government will find it hard to war against a foreign countries when their goods are that government's tax base.

John Médaille Wednesday, January 2, 2008 at 10:12:00 AM CST  

For John Kindley: The interesting thing about this discussion is that it has focused not on "What Taxes Should Buy," but on the underlying justification of any tax whatsoever. That's as it should be, since that is the prior question. For me, man is both personal and social, and the social needs a funding source no less than the personal. Granted, that most taxes are indeed theft, but not taxes per se.

Septeus7 gives an excellent critique of the whole idea of income taxes, which are certainly the most pernicious and intrusive of taxes. However, I still think they have a function when used as originally designed, that is, as something that applied to only the top 2% of incomes, and did so in a time when the gaps were egregious, as they are again.

One further caution. When using the term "natural law," one should not conflate it with "naturalism," as happened during the so-called Enlightenment. This confusion has corrupted the natural law dialogue ever since.

John Kindley Thursday, January 3, 2008 at 3:24:00 AM CST  

I did want to just clarify what seems to me an imprecision in my use of terms in my comments above. I echoed the claim made by some libertarians that "taxation" is theft. However, in my view the Georgist "single 'tax'" on the unimproved value of land does not fit into that category, and is not theft, because it's taking from people what does not really belong to them and rightly belongs to everyone in society equally. The ordinary disposition therefore of what is collected via the "single 'tax'" should be to everyone in society equally, in the form of a "citizen's dividend." The government, however, would be completely justified in skimming of the top its costs in collecting and distributing this "rent," and since this presumably requires some substantial "muscle," this requirement of establishing said muscle goes a long way towards putting in place the machinery for national defense. The (national) government would be legitimately paying itself for in essence protecting property rights (including the property rights of the landless), and this protection could naturally and legitimately encompass national defense, as well as appellate adjudication. Moreover, for reasons elaborated by Hillel Steiner, the estates of decedents are in a similar position to that of the unimproved value of land, and theoretically are subject to the same distribution, and so I would not characterize inheritance "taxes" as theft either. (For good economic reasons, however, and to lessen the temptation of evasion and the inducement to avoidance through gifting or extravagant consumption, it seems that inheritance taxes should not be confiscatory but modest, perhaps in the neighborhood of 10% on all amounts inherited above, say, $50k, without the distinctions between various types of beneficiaries and their relationships to the decedent that are made now.)

The national government (and state governments) should learn to live and budget within the above natural limits to what they can legitimately take "involuntarily." I'm not sure that after national defense is paid for there would be much or anything left over for a "citizen's dividend," but funding national defense and appellate adjudication solely from land value "taxes" and inheritance "taxes," while relieving those who own no land and who inherit nothing from all taxation (actually, it's not true that the latter would be paying nothing, since they in reality would be paying out of the dividends to which they would otherwise be entitled), would certainly seem to go far towards distributist goals. Certainly much farther than our current regime. The especially rich and the especially patriotic would be free to donate above and beyond these legitimately compelled forms of "taxation" to national defense (and other legitimate functions of the national government, if there be any) as they see fit. Local governments, which can be seen as voluntary associations because direct participation is more possible and people are freer to leave them than state or national governments, can arrange "taxes" (including, if they think it wise, income and/or other taxes that amount to theft if compelled by the national government) to fund police, schools, libraries, welfare, etc. as they see fit.

It is true, however, that long injustice (perpetrated in large part with the assistance of government) has resulted in an unjust distribution of not only land and other natural resources but also capital goods, an unjust distribution which perpetuates itself and seems to result in even greater concentrations of wealth and power as time goes on. On the basis of such considerations, I can see the merit and even the legitimacy of involuntary taxes on, and redistribution of, higher incomes. My hesitation comes from the difficulty in seeing a principled basis on which to designate how high an income should be before it's subject to taxation. I would be happy, e.g., with a flat 10% income tax on all income above the U.S. household mean, but I don't see a firm basis on which to rest my perception of the justice of such a scheme, and in the absence of such clear principles we have found ourselves where we are today, with people of modest means taxed into near or actual bankruptcy. Moreover, I get the strong feeling that the rich and powerful have always had much more influence over what the government does than the less well off, and despite fancy rhetoric have always bent the government to serve their own vested financial interests, and I'm sadly skeptical of that changing in the future. Even now, the relatively high income taxes on high "earners" (i.e. theoretically, both with regard to "earning" and with regard to whether they actually pay higher taxes) are not spent to compensate the poor for what has been taken from them, i.e. towards distributist goals, but are spent primarily on battleships, etc., which disproportionately benefit the rich, who have the most to lose. (Who was it who said, "What need have the poor for battleships?") Better to get rid of income taxes entirely and denounce them as theft than to vainly hope that they might be redirected to distributist ends. This extreme skepticism, justified by history and the historical origins of States including "our" State, about the ultimate intentions and purposes of government with respect to the poor on the one hand and the rich on the other, points to the practical importance of theoretical "anarchism" (which seems to me philosophically sound even if we are quite reasonably unwilling to embrace wholesale all of its practical implications). Indeed, for these reasons, I see in thinkers like Lysander Spooner, Albert Jay Nock, and Henry David Thoreau friends of distributist goals.

John Médaille Thursday, January 3, 2008 at 9:16:00 AM CST  

For John Kindley, I am largely in agreement with your comments. The most proper object for taxation is economic rent, and ground rent is the prime example. Although Georgism is called the "single-tax" theory, from the standpoint of the Georgists it is actually a "no-tax" theory, since the unearned increment of ground rent is a community product to begin with.

I can point to a practical example here in Texas, where gov't relies on land taxes and which has no income tax. As a consequence, home prices did not inflate as much as they did in income tax states with low land taxes. Hence, we will not suffer as much as other areas of the country from the current meltdown.

I think the income tax still has a role to play, especially at a time when CEOs are making 500 times what the line worker gets. When marginal tax rates were high (75-90%), there was no point in such obscene disparities, and the average CEO was paid 20-40 times the line worker. This is still a good living and a fair compensation. The income tax should be confined, imo, to such glaring inequalities.

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