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.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.
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.)