Friday, June 8, 2012

Libertarian looniness

A couple of days ago, the Deseret News published an op-ed piece by Walter E. Williams under the arresting headline "Immoral Beyond Redemption."  Caught my attention, for sure.  He begins with a couple of quotations from Founding Fathers: Ben Franklin, "Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters." Also John Adams:  "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." Heavy hitters, in other words; big guns.  We are as Americans, apparently involved in very very serious shenanigans.  We're doing serious, massive, horrendously sinful bad bad stuff. 

So what is it?  What evil are we perpetrating, what villainy pervades our society, what callous calumny do we commit?

We're using tax dollars to help poor people.  That's it.  Here's the link in case you don't believe me. 

I'm ordinarily a pretty laid-back guy.  I try to be pretty reasonable.  When I disagree with someone, I try to see his argument, try to understand where he's coming from, try to assess his evidence.

This, though, this is crazy stuff.  This is seriously loony.  Walter E. Williams teaches economics at George Mason University, apparently.  I don't know anything about good old GMU, except they're named for a Founding Father and they have a pretty good basketball team.  I don't know if their entire economics faculty is some hotbed of libertarian thought, or if he's the embarrassing elderly tenured prof the rest of the faculty wish would retire.  But he's nuts. 

I do want to say this pretty emphatically, though: taxation is not theft.  Taxation.  Is. Not. Theft.

Taxes are part of the social contract we agree to in order to live in a free society.  As citizens, we agree to a certain compact.  We agree, for example, that we will be governed by elected officials, who will pass laws, and that generally we will obey those laws, and pay penalties for not obeying them.  Those officials, however, are bound by certain rights, God-given, unalienable rights, which set forth boundaries which laws cannot abridge.

But central to the argument is this: we cede to government a legitimate monopoly over the use of violence.  If we behave violently, we break the law, and can be arrested, and arrest carries with it the threat of violence--perpetrators who resist arrest can properly and legally restrained, if necessary forcefully. Elected officials can pass laws regulating where we can drive our cars, or how loudly we can play our stereo systems.  If we disobey those laws, we can be arrested.

And elected officials can legitimately decide to use tax dollars to help poor people.  That happens to be a function of government I enthusiastically support.  Citizens who disagree with me can say so, campaign for office, make their case.  We can enjoy a vigorous debate together.  But if I lose the argument, if people are elected I disagree with and pass laws I disagree with, it's nonetheless my legal and moral obligation to pay my taxes anyway, even if the money is going to pay for things I think are wrong.

For example, I thought the war in Iraq was immoral and wrong.  But I wasn't actually paying taxes for that war.  I was paying for the system of government that produced that result.  I was paying for the privilege of living in a free society.  And government can, wage war, if our elected officials are persuaded that a casus belli exists.

It would be, for example, illegal and immoral for me to fly to Afghanistan and start shooting people.  It is not, however, illegal--and is at least debatably not immoral--for the US government to send soldiers there. 

The heart of Williams argument is this: "does an act that's clearly immoral and illegal when done privately become moral when it is done legally and collectively? Put another way, does legality establish morality?"  And, of course, legality does not establish morality. As Williams points out, apartheid was legal.  But legality does confer legitimacy.

And yes, absolutely, an act that's immoral when done privately can be moral when done legally and collectively. It would be immoral for me to break into my neighbor's house, no matter what.  But the police can do it, if they can show probable cause sufficient to get a search warrant.

Democracy isn't perfect, and sometimes majorities support actions that impinge on our rights.  Governments do overreach; mistakes are made.  But requiring people to pay their taxes is neither immoral or unconstitutional.  When Oliver Wendell Holmes (a conservative Supreme Court Justice, let's not forget) said "I like paying taxes.  With them, I buy civilization" he was not just expressing an opinion in a pithy and memorable way.  He was expressing a theory of governance.  It is, thank heavens, the theory we built our society on.

Walter E. Williams is certainly free to express his views; of course he is. His freedom to write is perhaps the most precious of our freedoms.  I also have the freedom to point out that he's a dingbat, and that his argument is not just silly, but dangerous. 


  1. I agree with Walter Williams. Tax dollars should go to defense and a few other places, but not for charity. Charity is the responsibility of each person. Taking from one person without their consent to help another person is still theft, no matter how altruistic the action.

    1. Fine. You think tax dollars should go to defense and a few other places, but not for charity. I disagree. Great, let's have that conversation. Having a disagreement about policy is a good thing. But if we have that conversation, an election is held, and your side loses, that doesn't mean the winning side is committing theft.
      That's where I think Walter Williams is not only wrong, but crazy. He doesn't seem to understand representative democracy. Either way elections turn out, decisions are made, they have to be paid for, and requiring taxes is not theft. It's just part of the social contract--we vote, and we pay our taxes.

  2. Hi there, Eric.

    I've been enjoying your blog for about a month now, just lurking, mostly. But I wanted to add my $0.02 on this one... Mainly because this kind of thinking is frustrating and I, like you, can't believe we are still arguing about it.

    The last statement in the article you cite questions the constitutionality of welfare type programs. I am not a constitutional lawyer by any stretch, but in Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution, provision is made for the congress to levy taxes to provide for "general welfare". This is a fairly broadly interpreted clause. FDR and the new dealers had this clause in mind when they did much of the alphabet soup of the depression era programs. Most of these programs were determined to be unconstitutional, incidentally, but they were in place long enough to make a difference for those who were directly or indirectly benefited by them.

    Some of the programs have survived, though - notably the social security program (not a program that you pay into, by the way, but where current generations pay the note for existing retirees), unemployment benefits, and medicare/medicaid type health programs (which grew out of the social security program). All of these programs have been tested against constitutional challenges and have been determined to pass muster. So why are we still arguing about it?

    The fact is, the folks who helped organize our first government realized that there is a legitimate role for government in an organized society. We are able to live more richly if we abandon some of the supposed freedoms in the name of the greater good.

    Some of us also realize that we are no richer than the poorest among us, no more intelligent than the most ignorant among us, and no more happy than the most miserable among us. That the government has a role in all of that is not really a point of debate. What EXTENT that reaches, and what level (local, state, or federal) that is administered at are good questions, and all things we should work out. But a civilization requires organization.

    Taxes are the free-will offering I lay on the altar of civilization. To me, it boils down to a personal choice. If I choose to regret the taxes I pay, wishing that I didn't have to pay them, and (often) ignoring the benefit I derive from them, the taxes I pay may very well feel a burden - or even theft. But if I can change my attitude about it, recognizing the good that comes from my taxes, and realizing that it is as much a privilege to pay them as it is to gripe about it with relative impunity, my perspective changes. The sacrifice is done with pleasure. The task (payment of taxes) has not changed - only my attitude about it.

    Sorry for the lengthy post. This kid of thing gets my goat, though. :)

    1. Thanks, Bill. I especially appreciate the constitutional argument.

  3. Where do you draw the line, though? How much taxes is it okay for the government to lay on their people? In Sweden, when you count all the taxes together, it amounts to about 60% of earnings. Also, government subsidizes preschool and daycare from one year of age, but does not help families who choose to take care of their own children after parent leave (which, granted, is pretty generous, with 390 days of paid leave at 80% of the income). With the heavy taxes levied on all families, it becomes almost impossible to take care of one's own children. To me, this is immoral, and unjust, and it is tearing our society apart at its basic unit - the children are taken from the parents by tax money.

    All taxes cannot be justified by your argument, and I wonder, where do you draw the line?

    1. Well, the Swedish people are generally pretty satisfied with their way of life and the government that makes it possible. Where do I draw the line? Depends on what we want government to do.
      Personally, I think we could spend a lot less on defense, and more on education. I like how in Europe college tuition is covered. But i think these are decisions a free people should decide democratically. i doubt we'll go as far as Scandinavia; if we did, I'd support it.

  4. Well, it is both good and bad that tuition is covered. People do not value their education as highly, and don't finish their degrees as often when they have less invested in it. They don't realize how much it costs, because they don't see it, they don't apply for scholarships, because it has already been paid for by taxes.

    I do agree that the US could spend a lot less on defense, especially if they changed their strategy to more defense within their borders instead of fighting other peoples' fights. It is a hard question, and I don't claim to understand it all.

    I think that governments must be very careful what they do, but it has been a straight propaganda against families in Sweden, where we pay other people to take care of the children, but do not recompense the families who pay for the childcare of others, but take care of their own. It becomes very unjust, like I said previously, and it is important that people have the option of caring for their own. Did you know a place in daycare is subsidized with about $20 000 every year, per child? Now, that is what homecare families don't get, but pay for through taxes.

    It becomes absurd when families have more than one child, and perhaps the second income doesn't even amount to $30000. That is not the taxes paid, it is governments tearing families apart for political reasons, and it is ugly.

    1. Sure. And I don't particularly want to live in Sweden. But that's the kind of policy they favor, and have voted to sustain in democratic elections. That's all I'm saying. We wouldn't support those policies in our country.