Friday, May 06, 2005

Thief or Oppressor?

(Update: Sandefur has seen fit to comment on the post below .. and he makes a good point. More later.)

For the last day or two, Mr. Sandefur (a lawyer) and Mr. St. Pierre (a Software Engineer) have been using their blogs to argue about libertarianism. This is not unusual for Sandefur, whose blog makes it clear that he is a staunch libertarian. Their argument centers on one of the key injustices that libertarians propose to fix: the theft implicit in paying for social programs with tax dollars.

Theft, you say? Yes, Mr. Sandefur rightly asserts. If the taxee does not agree to be taxed, taxation is theft. To enforce this point, let's suppose that while I'm walking home from work today, a robber leaps out from behind a garbage can.

He screams, "Give me all your money!"
"No," I say.
"Give me all your money, or I'll shoot you."
"OK," I say, and hand over my money.
Satisfied, the robber takes my money and leaves.

I continue my walk home, and soon an IRS agent approaches me. Crap. I missed the filing deadline.

"Pay your taxes," he says.
"No," I say.
"Pay your taxes or you're going to jail," he says.
"I'm not going to jail," I say.
"If you don't cooperate, I'll shoot you," he says.
"I didn't know that IRS agents got guns," I say.
"This is Texas," he says. "Everybody has a gun."
"Good point," I say, and write him a check.
Satisfied, the IRS agent takes my money and leaves.

Of course, the workings of government are a bit more convoluted than this. In particular, the fact that citizens vote for their representatives means that they have some input into how much they are taxed and what these revenues are used for. Also, there's the consideration that some of the taxes will be used for "public goods": things that all citizens derive benefits from (and, some might argue, derive those benefits in proportion to the amount of money that they put into the system). But if I'm in the minority, or if the system isn't working, and I decline to pay my taxes, the government has the option to come after me using force. I don't see how you can avoid equating this with robbery. Therefore, we shouldn't tax people because we might end up spending it on things they wouldn't approve of. Right?

Let's look at the other side of the argument.

First, let's suppose that both Sandefur and St. Pierre are correct in asserting that people are "greedy little beasts."

Second, let's suppose that at some level, life is a battle for resources. A resource is anything that can be used to fulfill a need or desire.

Third, let's observe that all resources can be used to get more resources. Examples: food, shelter, wit, knowledge, money, property, family connections, physical strength.

Fourth, let's notice that the people who are best suited to get resources are the people who already have resources.

If this is an accurate picture of the world, then it seems obvious that over time, the balance of resources will shift toward the people who begin with the most resources. And once people get into the well of No Resources, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to get out. Allowing this sort of oppression, I think, is morally unacceptable. Hence our dilemma.

And it's a textbook ethical dilemma: you're wrong if you steal from the rich, and you're wrong if you allow the rich to oppress the poor. So what should we do? I think we have to accept guilt on both sides and try to split the middle.

A government that allows resources to flow as they will avoids the problem of "theft" discussed earlier, but it would also result in a dramatically unbalanced distribution of resources. A government that enforced an equal distribution of resources ... well, it sounds fair, but communism just doesn't seem to work.

What seems to work? A government that allows an unequal distribution of resources, but occasionally steals from the (undeserving) rich and gives to the (equally undeserving) poor.

So instead of arguing about stealing and oppression, I'd like St. Pierre and Sandefur to suggest where a line might be drawn. How much stealing from the rich is too much? How much oppression of the poor?


Paul said...

Terrific statement and analysis, Matthew.

Another way to put this is that America has gone a long way toward turning "free markets" and "capitalism" into an ideology.

Call me a pragmatist, because I think every ideology is an idiot-ology. It's a complex, changing world. And absolutely and for sure, whenever things get dramatically out of balance and you end up with the very rich/priviledged on the one hand, and the poor on the other, without much in the middle, the result, sooner or later, is bloodshed.

I say the best idea is to keep things in balance before they get to that point, without trying to be a "purist." Because things do balance out, one way or another. Human beings don't accept being treated like dirt by other human beings.

Kyle said...

Matt, what an utterly complex and mind-tripping connundrum you have propsed. I will be thinking on this one for quite awhile.

I always have to ask myself, who is suffering? The rich because they have to pay more tax? Or the poor either way. Either way, whether we tax the rich more or allow the economic divide to grow, the poor will still suffer and the rich will be just freakin' fine.

I'm not sure if I care whether the rich are sacked.

life_of_bryan said...

A dead horse, no doubt, but a favorite topic of mine.
It's interesting how this issue is viewed across various party lines. I don't have the stats on me, but I thought I had read where the red-staters tended to give more to charity, etc., than the blue-staters. I realize a lot of that relates to church contributions of course, but it still points to the "money where your mouth is" cliche.

Instead of determining how much stealing from the "rich" is too much, maybe you draw the line on the other side (like they've tried in the past with reforms) and determine how much subsidizing is too much? I'm not up to speed with the current system (thankfully), but any open-ended support system is fatally flawed in a few my feeble mind at least. There is a certain segment of the population that will never pick themselves up off the mat in absence of a reason to do so. Don't question me on this, I am one such person lacking any natural initiative skills. I think the theory of relativity applies here quite well, on a human level. If there's no cut-off with this gravy train, your going to get a quite a few season-ticket holders.
Any system that encourages (by not discouraging) trans-generational dependence or acceptance seems to me like it does more harm than ignoring the "need" in the first place.
One fundamental question I would ask is, what is the real goal of a welfare program? What is your desired outcome (let's ignore the legitimately disabled folks here)?

Of course I'm speaking from the jaded perspective of a bitter person who grew up seeing plenty of govt. reliant deadbeats all around him, who never cared to change. The govt. can supply you with money, food, shelter, and education, but there are many other things necessary for success or self-reliance that they can't/shouldn't ever provide. I'm talking about motivation, pride, confidence, care for one's self or their contribution to society, etc.

I'm all for balance (but, like any other selfish person would say, hopefully not at my expense).

Kyle said...

Life of Brian (can I assume Sandufer?) makes an excellent point. One I never thought that I would agree with.

No doubt the welfare program is in need of dire repair and many people take advantage of the system. The best question proposed above is what is the desired outcome of a welfare program? Could I propose that the desired goal is to provide the poor with a means to better their life. In a society where those in poverty are not aided by the government then you have a society where all the power and control lie in the hands of the ones with the money. Someone in poverty has absolutely no chance or hope of ever bettering their station in life unless they are given the "hand-up" by someone. Can we really expect the people with the money and power to just willingly give it up.

That is the best thing about America. If our country was founded on anything it is the idea that monetary status at birth does not have to dictate the rest of one's life. They can be bettered because of the fact that we aren't going to allow you to starve to death. Sure, people will abuse the system, so maybe we need another system, but let's not say "it's my money, every little bit should stay with me." It's not really your money anyway, especially if you are believer in the Judeo-Christian God. Which most American's do. Particularly the American's who want to do away with welfare.

A. Lo said...

It seems to me, however, that Sandefur fails to recognize that he has been given certain privileges which, I would guess, have put him in a better position to own that house and have that job where he uses his brain.

I've been learning about the fact that white people have, since the end of WWII, been able to store their wealth in the ownership of their own homes, which was made possible for many of them through certain GI Bills. This same privilege, however, was largely denied to black men who had fought for our country in the war.

So Mr. Sandefur has a leg up already just because he is white.

He might also have been given some advantages that many welfare recipients are not, including a supportive family, being taught the value of education, someone to pay (or help with) his college tuition, etc.

After eight months in the inner city, I am learning that where you start makes a huge impact on where you end up.

Should he have to pay for the fact that he is white and (perhaps) has a supportive family? Should HE bear the punishment for our fathers' racism and the prejudice inherently built into the systems at work in our country? No. But neither should he blame welfare recipients for not being in the same position as he. And perhaps he would understand this a little better if he had started in a different place.

Paul said...

The fact is, the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. This isn't a viable long term trend.

I'm much less worried by the potential abuse of welfare than by the tattered "safety net." Compare Medicare benefits to what they were forty years ago, or what it costs a chronically ill American out of pocket today as compared to the sixties, or the standard of living the minimum wage gets you today compared with the last time it was raised.

And now we have an administration devoted to doing away with Social Security. That's what "privatization" is: doing away with a guaranteed minimum benefit for people. As if this administration doesn't know full well that Americans don't have the best track record in the world for saving money on our own. But they figure government has better things to spend our money on than the well being of ordinary Americans.

If WWII was "The Greatest Generation," the Baby Boomers may well be known to history as "The Greediest Generation." There seems to be an overall trend that when we get rich, we find the best thing that we can then do with our money is devise ways to get richer.

The widening gap of rich and poor, in this nation and worldwide, is way more dangerous than whatever proportion of people on welfare like receiving it.


life_of_bryan said...

Ha, no Kyle, I'm not Sandufer.
I should probably clarify some things so that my ramblings aren't taken the wrong way. I don't deny the fact that there is a legitimate need out there as far as public assistance goes. I simply take issue with the inefficiencies and abuse within the current system -- which, unless I'm wrong, is probably a fairly universal concern regardless of political/social leaning. I just feel like a stop-gap or other parameters to prevent abuse are one of first steps in reforming a necessary program. Paul has a decent point that this shouldn't be my primary concern, but I'm just being honest. I'm not denying my duty to society and/or Christendom. I'm just asking for a little common sense.
I should also state that, if your assumption is that everyone on welfare is pure of heart and in dire straits due to no fault of their own, then that lends itself to one perspective on the welfare issue. However, if you believe, as I do (honesty again, excuse my bitterness), that there is a segment of the population that basically chooses this lifestyle (I'm talking fully capable folks here), then you would certainly have a slightly different perspective on the issue. Either way, some of the money is coming out of your pocket regardless -- meaning through tax dollars, or an unemployed person taking a job that you would have otherwise gotten, or needy people turning to crime out of desperation & stealing it from you, etc. (but I don't mean to imply that goods/wealth are finite, because I somewhat agree with Sandufer on his point). I say that to say that arguing about it is pointless since the cost to you is real in the end.

Sandufer's comments talk a lot about the issue from an economic or free market perspective, and there are a lot of good points in there. I would suggest that open or capitalist markets work with the efficiency that they do because they are running in parallel with our desire for attaining more resources (in general, govt is the only body adding obstacles, i.e. regulations, to an otherwise efficient process). The players contribute to the process because it is in their best interest to do so (working in tandem, more or less, and everybody gets paid at some point). Not so efficient when the end goal is counter to our natural desires (spreading some of the wealth to those in need which they cannot meet on their own). I'm not saying that all support of the poor would stop in absence of govt. systems that force such support. I'm just saying that the problem would not be "self-cleaning" if left to the market in its natural state....which is what I thought was implied in Sandefur's comments. You would have some voluntary support & self-improvement going on, but probably very inadequate given the scope of the need. Seems like there are some efficiencies implied in Sandufers argument that might not be fully realistic. It also relies on a sense of personal responsibility (on both the have's and have not's), but I think the proven lack of such behavior is what contributes to the current problem (think about it before you react to it). Of course, his arguments could have also implied a sort of "survival of the fittest" approach, where those who don't even choose to better their position through the free market shouldn't be worried about at all...which I'm not sure I entirely disagree with, but my conscience begs me otherwise.
Thus, as long as I'm thinking rationally, I don't see a big issue with the govt stepping in and enacting a slight redistribution of goods for the sake of expediency (as I've argued the problem wouldn't take care of itself quickly enough).

And maybe I'm wrong, but I feel like the widening gap between the have's and have not's is probably too broad & complex of an issue to expect empty govt subsidies to appropriately address. It's more of a societal/familial burden that falls on the govt's shoulders due to lack of a willing champion.

And as far as social security, I have to ask the question -- what was the original goal of the program, and has that changed over time? The answer should inform one's thinking on the issue (although admittedly subjective).

Can an accountant really be compassionate? Unreasonable expectations?