A 900-Word Concession

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Shortly after hearing about Barack Obama's rambling, 2500-word response (ably analyzed by Doug Reich) to a woman's contention that Americans are "over-taxed" as it is, I was stunned to see a prominent conservative columnist concede Obama's basic premise in an only slightly more economical 900 words and change.

To be fair, Jonah Goldberg makes quite a few pertinent observations about the deleterious effects of increasing taxation, but a principled reader cannot and will not let go of his best:

Imagine for a moment that Tax Freedom Day was Dec. 31. In other words, picture working 365 days a year for the government. Now, the government would "give" you a place to sleep, food to eat and clothes to wear, but all your income would really be Washington's income to allocate as it saw fit. Some romantics might call this sort of arrangement "socialism" or "communism." But another perfectly good word for it is "slavery" or, if you prefer, involuntary servitude.
Indeed. Unfortunately, Goldberg's next sentence is not, "This question ultimately boils down to, 'How much slavery is enough?'" Nor is the remainder of his argument anything resembling such a conclusion. Rather, he immediately concedes to Obama the principle that each man owns his own life:
Now, no one is proposing any such arrangement. But it's an important point conceptually. A 100% tax rate would be tyrannical not just because you have a right to own what you create, but because the government would necessarily decide what you can and can't have. Reasonable people can of course differ about where a tax rate becomes tyrannical, and we're far from that line in historical terms. But any amount of taxation can be unjust if it is being used for bad reasons, is applied discriminatorily or if it's taken without representation. (That's how the American Revolution started, after all.)
I cannot disagree more with the idea that reasonable people -- if such people value freedom anyway -- can seriously entertain the question about how much slavery is tyrannical. Any slavery at all is tyrannical, and once any amount is accepted as "reasonable," the fact is that slavery has been accepted as reasonable. To draw a historical parallel of my own, that's what Abraham Lincoln meant leading up to the Civil War when he said:
I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South.
The fact that slavery was much closer to a binary condition for each individual then as opposed to a question of degree for everyone now is inconsequential, as the economic maxim, "Controls breed controls," demonstrates.

Goldberg is right that slavery is impractical, but wrong to think that this is only true when an individual is a slave more than about a third of the time. In fact, he is wrong to permit himself to accept as legitimate the notion that any of us should be slaves even one-thousandth of the time. All slavery is wrong, and no government based on slavery is truly legitimate.

We might perhaps forgive Goldberg or others horrified by the recent growth of the government for not being able to imagine how the legitimate functions of the government might be carried out without taxation. Nevertheless, that is something we need to start imagining, because we will never get off the slippery slope we are on until we start making an uncompromising moral case against slavery.

Fortunately, Ayn Rand, who alone has made a comprehensive moral defense of capitalism not only showed that a government limited to its proper scope would be far less expensive, she threw out a few ideas of her own in an essay about government financing in a free society. She also made it clear that such a change, while a distant goal in the fight against tyranny, is a goal nonetheless.
In a fully free society, taxation--or, to be exact, payment for governmental services--would be voluntary. Since the proper services of a government--the police, the armed forces, the law courts--are demonstrably needed by individual citizens and affect their interests directly, the citizens would (and should) be willing to pay for such services, as they pay for insurance.

The question of how to implement the principle of voluntary government financing--how to determine the best means of applying it in practice--is a very complex one and belongs to the field of the philosophy of law. The task of political philosophy is only to establish the nature of the principle and to demonstrate that it is practicable. The choice of a specific method of implementation is more than premature today--since the principle will be practicable only in a fully free society, a society whose government has been constitutionally reduced to its proper, basic functions. ("Government Financing in a Free Society," The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 116.)
I refuse to quibble with anyone over whether I should be a slave for one minute or my entire life, or for any amount in between. I will settle for nothing less than an end to the practice of slavery, and that includes whitewashing it as "taxation" when the agency that should be protecting me from slavery is in fact guilty of the very crime.

-- CAV


Beth said...

Fabulous post. Nice elucidation of the principle.
Thank you.

Gus Van Horn said...

You're welcome.

What's so horrendous here is that Goldberg, too, named it -- and then almost instantly evaded it!

jc said...

To me this is the biggest problem for objectivism and one I run into often when I advocate for capitalism among my statist friends. I can sometimes get to the point where we can provisionally agree that the proper role of government is to protect it's citizens from physical violence but end up losing because most don't like the implication that some won't be protected from physical violence because they didn't pay or didn't pay enough. One opponent argued that we'd end up with a highly stratified society with rich people living in types of gated community and others living outside in a sort of anarchist type society. While Ayn Rand may have provided a philosophical defense of principle defining the proper role of government it feels as though Objectivism has punted on practical implications of these principles. I am not really sure on where we go from here.

Beth said...

It is amazing isn't it?

I think people are able to do that in part because they accept liberty and equality as stand alone principles. Without understanding the hierarchy of concepts, both values are taken at face value. Any contradictions which occur are not resolved by referring to more fundamental principles to correct definitions and eliminate the contradictions. Instead, people look for ways to find a balance or compromise between conflicting concepts that seem to work best or cause the least harm.

This leads to people believing things like, "it's ok to violate rights as long as you simultaneously violate everyone's rights" --or achieving health care access parity trumps individual rights.

I am constantly in awe of the importance of epistemology!


Gus Van Horn said...


Have you read that essay? If not, I highly recommend it. (Actually, I'm thinking about re-reading it myself.)

While she doesn't give ALL the answers to that question, she indicates how it would work, and that it doesn't mean that the poor would end up without governmental protection.

Aside from that, I have usually noticed that people who make arguments like that are again presupposing conditions that exist now, but would not obtain in a free or nearly-free society.


You and me both. Even among Objectivists, the problem crops up in myriad ways.

No area is exempt from analysis understanding by means of principles. That is both a huge advantage for man and offers the potential to screw up on many levels -- unless one demands of himself unwavering adherence to principle and pays close attention to context.


Mo said...

speaking of principles I am writing an essay on corporations called selfish angels.

Gus Van Horn said...


Interesting title. If you plan to publish it, let me know when/where it appears.


madmax said...

Its hard for me to have any respect for Goldberg. He's aware of Ayn Rand. He mocks her and doesn't even want her included in the Conservative big tent. Which is fine, she doesn't belong in the Conservative movement. But as far as Goldberg is concerned his Left-like dismissal of Ayn Rand means that he is deliberately avoiding anything which will challenge Burkean/Humean Conservatism. He's not looking for a conceptual grounding for individual rights. He could care less. To him the only thing that can restrain government is "organically grown traditions and institutions". Goldberg represents the impotence of today's Conservatism; the NeoConservative variety. The PaleoConservatives are a whole different kind of nonsense.

Mo said...

will do so. now the challenge is to gather information.

Steve D said...

This is a very important and interesting post. Goldberg seems to think that anything less than 100% servitude (technically a more correct term than slavery) is debatable. I think the reason that he didn’t ask: “how much slavery is enough” is that he didn’t think of it. The reason he didn’t think of it is that although he seemed to state a principle it didn’t really percolate into his brain His method of thinking (epistemology) did not allow him this question. There is a break in his logic between his two paragraphs where he equates 100% taxation for slavery as a matter of principle but not any number less than 100%. If you follow his logic to its ultimate conclusion then there must be a taxation amount less than 100% which exactly transitions between tyranny and freedom.

“One opponent argued that we'd end up with a highly stratified society with rich people living in types of gated community and others living outside in a sort of anarchist type society.”

Yet even a quick look at history shows the opposite. Precapitalist societies had essentially no middle class. We have seen the sort of society he describes and protection of individual rights is not indicated. On the other hand the more individual rights are protected the further from away from that description, a society actually is.

All it would seem to take is simple extrapolation. If better protection of rights improves society then the most complete protection should lead to the best society. If lowering taxes 10% stimulates the economy then 20% should stimulate even more, 30% better still, leading to the conclusion that economically the best possible tax rate is 0%. Yet people don’t think that way - they require fundamentals but they don’t realize it, so we need to explain time and again why this is both practical and moral. There is no way to avoid discussing epistemology if you want to make a strong argument. Yet be prepared to get a lot of blank stares if you do.

“I am constantly in awe of the importance of epistemology!”

I see this sort of thing all the time in science though. People can use the wrong type of logic, form hypotheses by misinterpreting or overextending data and generally just make a mess of things. The difference is science is checked much more immediately by reality so when people make mistakes, the consequences usually become apparent fairly quickly. They eventually muddle through and work things out. It’s an instructive though that the same type of bad thinking occurs in politics and ethics but WITHOUT the immediate check by reality. The time lag between bad politics and its consequences is long enough that most people do not make the logical connection. I suppose the same could be said of bad ethics and the societal and personal consequences.

I think epistemology should be our major focus if we want to change the world. The most important factor leading to the problems of the world today is bad epistemology. Most people really do seem to have difficulty with this. Proper thinking demands a lot from people. When all the people who are today in favor of capitalism are so for the right reasons the battle will be almost won.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for reminding me of Goldberg's true lack of intellectual stature. Take my expressed surprise as purely rhetorical.

That said, it says something about impotence when all I need do to demonstrate it is connect two dots as I did here.




Your tax rate example regarding the need for a proper epistemology is excellent, and even extends into the time domain. How many states do (incomplete) "sales tax holidays" to help the poor and yet never consider how to permanently rid themselves of such taxes?


Jim May said...

Goldberg stands for conservatism itself in this respect.

Gus Van Horn said...


Mo said...

what exactly is "Burkean/Humean Conservatism" may I ask?

Gus Van Horn said...

Not a term I use myself, but I'd guess that it is social conservatism "justified" by lip-service to science or reason. Some more here. Of particular note: "Although Burke accepted the American colonists' arguments that they were entitled to the rights of Englishmen, he became an outspoken opponent of the French Revolution because he thought capitalism should be subordinate to the medieval social tradition and that the business class should be subordinate to aristocracy. Burke justified the social order on the basis of tradition: it represented the wisdom of the species and he valued community and social harmony."

Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you write in re Burkean/Humean conservatism: "Not a term I use myself, but I'd guess that it is social conservatism "justified" by lip-service to science or reason." Actually, quite the opposite. Burke argued that it was necessary to follow tradition as such; he attacked the French Revolution in part because it elevated the individual and reason above tradition. The most famous excrescence in his line in American conservatism is, of course, Russell Kirk; the National Review ilk go for that approach big time.


Gus Van Horn said...


Thank you, sir, for the correction.


madmax said...

Snedcat is right. When I use the expression Burkean or Humean Conservatism, what is meant is that "pure reason" or "unaided reason" or "materialist reason" is limited and must be aided by faith or revealed knowledge. This is essentially the form skepticism takes in Conservatism.

Because human reason is limited, society can't be structured using "reason alone". It must rely on the "wisdom of the ages" and thus it must venerate "traditions and institutions". Ayn Rand writes about this in 'Conservatism: An Obituary'. She accurately identifies that Conservatives, in rejecting "unaided reason", actually claim that their enemies, the socialists and progressives, are representative of those who use reason*.

From this, Conservatives then argue against individualism and laissez-faire: for them individualism reduces to subjectivism and laissez-faire undermines national cohesion because it is too egalitarian [!]. Old style Conservatives always favored a Mercantilist system. Leftists are internationalist collectivists. But following Burke and Russel Kirk, Conservatives are collectivists that stress family and religion. Sometimes they also explicitly stress race and nation - usually if they are PaleoConservatives.

Jonah Goldberg, while a NeoCon, still places much stock in Edmund Burke. He repeatedly mouths the "traditions" mantra. One of his critiques of Ayn Rand is that she believes that a society can be structured using "only reason". This earns her derision by nearly all serious Conservatives.

I think it can be said that Burke represents what Objectivist philosopher Stephen Hicks (sadly not ARI affiliated) calls the "epistemological failure of the Enlightenment". With Enlightenment reason undercut, skepticism spread via Kant and Hume. The Left took skepticism and ran with it in one way. Old school Conservatives breathed a sigh of relief and embraced skepticism in their own way - all to advance their religio-traditionalist ends (many of which were pro-Medieval).

And that is the state of Conservatism to this day. Jim May wrote about this in the comments section of his 'Epistemological Primitivism' posts over at The New Clarion. In those comments sections he was debating two Conservatives regarding the 9th Amendment. Conservative skepticism was on display clearly there.

* This gets even more complicated because what is really being debated here is what reason really is. Many Conservatives and certainly many Christian apologists will argue that belief in God is rational. They will say it is a logical inference that tests one's commitment to "true reason" - a reason compatible with mankind's limited, fallen nature. So, this is ultimately an epistemological battle: Rand's approach to reason against the mystic's view of reason and the skeptic's view of reason (which as a scientist surrounded by secular academic leftist types I am sure you are well acquainted with.)

Gus Van Horn said...


(1) Thanks for expounding on the meaning of that term.

(2) I must state that I cannot regard as an Objectivist a supporter of Atlas Society, particularly someone with his philosophical training.


madmax said...

"I must state that I cannot regard as an Objectivist a supporter of Atlas Society, particularly someone with his philosophical training."

Agreed. I should have used Diana's term and called him an "Objectivish" intellectual. Still, he is one of the few Rand influenced intellectuals doing work on that period of philosophy: tracing the dead ends of philosophic rationalism and empiricism and the consequences for the modern world.

I don't know if you will want to link to it but here is an excellent and very informative interview where Hicks lays out the development of the modern Left and how it was caused by the Enlightenment's epistemological failure. It was one of the best and most informative interviews I have read. Its a shame Hicks chose to be associated with Kelley. To use Rand's expression, he's got a good mind.


Gus Van Horn said...

"To use Rand's expression, he's got a good mind."

That may be, but if so, it makes his failure as an intellectual even more inexcusable. Those people don't even know what Objectivism is.

I value your comments here, but do not wish to even appear to be promoting Hicks's work by discussing it here any further. Thanks in advance.