Thursday, July 31, 2008

Taxation is Theft?

From the moment I started writing on the moral concept of theft (as applied to consecrated communion wafers), I was waiting for somebody to respond as Jimmy_D responded on July 28th,

And now let's apply this to taxes.

Because, clearly, if theft is the taking of property from another through deception (fraud), stealth (burglary), or force (robbery), then taxation is theft. We pay our taxes – we hand over our property to the government – because we are threatened with harm if we do not.

First point: There is no such thing as intrinsic value. Value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires, and moral value exists in the form of relationships between malleable desires (desires that can be molded through social forces) and other desires.

Desire utilitarianism recommends an aversion to acquiring property through deception, stealth, and force. We should all feel very uneasy about taking property from other people without their consent. Because, to the degree that we are uncomfortable with (have an aversion to) this type of activity – to that degree all of our property is more secure, we can make better plans, and we are less likely to go to war with each other.

This, by the way, is what I consider important about the case of the communion cracker. It is not the value of the cracker itself, but it is the value of the aversion to taking property through deception that I sought to defend. That moral principle has implications far beyond communion crackers. It affects all of us in the security of our own possessions. The idea that it is a minimal crime for others to walk off with our property whenever they disagree with our reasons for wanting to hold onto it leaves all of us less secure.

Anyway, looking at the issue through desire utilitarian terms, there are two areas (at least) in which the strict principle described above will thwart desires rather than fulfill them. As a result, the desire that best tends to fulfill other desires is a bit more complex than a simple aversion to the use of deception, stealth, or force to acquire the property of another.

Public Goods

One of the area where a strict application of this principle will thwart desires is in the area of public goods. Public goods are goods where we cannot limit the benefits of a particular good only to those who pay for them.

The problem with public goods is that, if people can obtain the benefit without paying for them, then the goods tend to be under-funded and under-developed. We lose a great deal of desire fulfillment because people are sitting around on their hands hoping to be ‘free riders’ – to obtain the benefits of somebody else’s contribution, without making a contribution of their own.

Example of public goods are national defense (it is difficult to defend 514 Pearl Street without also defending 516 Pearl Street), police and court system (we are all better off when a rapist is taken off the streets, not just those who paid for the police and court system that captured and imprisoned him), education (we all benefit from having a well-educated population), clean air (it is difficult to give one person clean air but not his neighbor), and the prevention of human extinction (to the degree that people value human survival).

If we left these goods up to entirely private funding, we would suffer a free-rider problem that will give us less of each of these goods than will actually fulfill our desires. Of course, the only way to get people to make contributions to these goods (in many cases) is to use force against them. It is to tax them, and to threaten to put in jail those who do not pay their taxes.

So, we have reason to promote a modified moral concept of theft. We want people to be uneasy about taking the property of another through deception, stealth, or force – except when the money is used to provide (desire-fulfilling) public goods, in which case there should be less aversion to taking the money through force.

There should still be some aversion, or the practice of taking money for public goods gets out of hand. People will have an unfortunate tendency to see ‘public goods’ where none exist - when doing so allows them to then use force (through taxes) to get money from others.

In fact, it is possible to argue that we are better off foregoing the benefits of public goods then we are establishing a system of taxation to provide public goods. The latter will inevitably be corrupted, with the corruption thwarting more desires than the public goods would fulfill. However, this is an empirical question. Furthermore, it does not refute the principle that where providing public goods does more good than harm, then taxation for the purpose of providing public goods is morally legitimate.

The Wealth Effect

In a community where people have different levels of wealth, those with a great deal of wealth have the power to bid resources away from those who have little wealth – even though the person with little wealth would have fulfilled more and stronger desires with those resources.

I have used an example in previous posts, following Hurricane Katrina, where water is scarce. One person with a great deal of money wants to use some of the limited water to shampoo her dog, and does not care about the price. So, she bids up the price of water. As she does so, she bids it up above the price that another woman, who has a sick and dehydrated child, can afford to pay.

Many conservatives argue that, in a free market, property goes to its most highly valued use because it goes to the person willing to pay more. This isn’t true – because $20 to somebody who has $20 million is worth a lot less than $10 to somebody who has $100. In order to find who whether the person who wants to shampoo her dog or the person who wants water for her sick child values the water more, we have to ask who would bid the more for the water if they had equal wealth. That is to say, if the value of the money was the same for both agents.

We see a world today where those with a great deal of money bid significant amounts of resources away from those who are barely able to survive. We see people bidding up the price of food so that they can use it to produce energy, much of which goes to entertainment, making others significantly worse off (thwarting extremely strong and stable desires) along the way.

In a recent discussion that I heard, one of the participants suggested that price should be used to allocate who gets immunizations in the case of a global epidemic. Yet, this is nothing but a recipe for a situation where the wealthy (and those who are favored by the wealthy) survive and the poor die. When a rich person lives instead of a poor person, we have absolutely no reason to believe that his life is more valuable than that of the poor person who died. We have no reason to believe that rich people have more or stronger desires than poor people and, realize more value through living than poor people do. So, there is no reason to believe that rich people realize more value in living than poor people do – all else being equal.

In desire utilitarian terms, there is nothing to recommend this method of distribution.

Here, too, we have reason to worry about the possibility of people using this power of the government to do harm instead of to do good. Seeing the government hand out money, they decide to use government force to take (tax) money from others and direct it into their own pockets. They merely pretend to be interested in making sure people with little wealth are able to acquire higher-valued resources. They lobby and lie to promote a program that they falsely claim to have legitimate ends, when it does not have those ends.

Here, too, we might be better off abolishing the practice, because the good we forego by preventing the rich from bidding more highly valued resources away from the poor is less than the harm done by a culture that invests huge amounts of money taking from the poor and middle-class and giving it to people who already have enough money to manipulate the system.

Institutions

Desire utilitarianism says that a person with good desires would probably have no aversion to the taking of money by force (taxation) for the purpose of promoting public goods such as national defense, courts, and education. She would also probably have no aversion to taxation for the purpose of preventing people with a great deal of wealth from bidding resources away from people who have little money but a more highly valued use for those resources.

Still, the person with good desires still has reason to look for institutions that make sure that the money is taxed for the purpose of public goods and most highly valued uses, and to prevent people from exploiting the system to divert funds to less valued uses. The test of whether a person with good desires would support taxation is the test of whether the program actually does promote a public good that would have otherwise gone underfunded or corrects the problem of wealthy people bidding resources away from more highly valued uses.

13 comments:

Db0 said...

Oh-oh, here come the libertarian :P

Jimmy_D said...

I never said taxation is theft, just giving you ideas for another post. Oh, and you forgot about the role of private charity as an alternative to redistribution.

Jimmy_D said...

For example wouldn't private charity be a sound answer to this issue?

"In fact, it is possible to argue that we are better off foregoing the benefits of public goods then we are establishing a system of taxation to provide public goods. The latter will inevitably be corrupted, with the corruption thwarting more desires than the public goods would fulfill. However, this is an empirical question. Furthermore, it does not refute the principle that where providing public goods does more good than harm, then taxation for the purpose of providing public goods is morally legitimate."

You get desires fulfilled, more good tan harm done, and avoid the pesky nuisance of an inherently corrupt bureaucracy.

J. A. Warner said...

This is part of the problem I have with any utilitarianism. You are justified in doing whatever you want with 49 percent of the population as long as it in some way benefits the other 51.

In your example for instance you not only assume all desires have equal weight but see the non-fulfillment (not just "thwarting") as a moral evil. That reeks of a spoiled child's morality. I don't know about you but keeping my hard earned money is far more moral and desired than having it taken and given to politicians.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

J. A. Warner

This is part of the problem I have with any utilitarianism. You are justified in doing whatever you want with 49 percent of the population as long as it in some way benefits the other 51.

Not on the type of utilitarianism that I use in these posts.

This form of utilitarianism says that you are justified in doing whatever 100% of the people should want (where what a person 'should want' is that which tends to fulfill the desires of others).

If what 51% of the people want is something that tends to thwart the desires of others (or, possibly, of themselves as well), then it gets pretty poor marks on a desire utilitarian theory.

j.a. warner said...

And whom are we setting up as the arbiter of what people should want? I thought you were a subjectivist? So how can you set an objective universal ought? Sounds hypocritical to me.

How is "tends to fulfill the desires of others" any different from "altruism as the highest value"? I didn't think anyone believed that outside of a an Any Rand novel.

Since there is no empirical basis for a "one true" should and I don't trust anyone to decide for me your utilitarianism is little different from any other. So long as your arbitrary criteria is met we can do whatever we want to the minority. Greatest (blank) for the greatest number.

Anonymous said...

So the ends justify the means?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

j. a. warner

And whom are we setting up as the arbiter of what people should want?

This is a poorly formed question - like asking "who are we setting up as the arbiter for the speed of light?"

I thought you were a subjectivist?

It depends on what you mean by 'subjectivist' - but I would answer that I am not.

How is "tends to fulfill the desires of others" any different from "altruism as the highest value"?

Desires are reasons for action. A 'desire that P' is a mental state that provides the agent with a 'reason for action' to realize any state of affairs in which P is true. 'Altruism' is not a reason for action - not unless it is expressed in terms of a desire to help others.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

anonymous

So the ends justify the means?

Well, since every end is, at the same time, a means . . . and since every means has the potential to contain within it an end . . . this rather simplistic cliche is actually pretty meaningless.

The end cannot justify the means if the means are, themselves, in conflict with other ends.

Jimmy_D said...

"This is a poorly formed question - like asking "who are we setting up as the arbiter for the speed of light?""

That's an incoherent answer. A moral question is not one of fact. It's like asking "what color should we paint the car", instead.

You claim to disbelieve in inherit value but your arguments rely on moral judgments being objective. The speed of light is an objective property that can be discovered through mechanical means. Moral properties exist only in regards to personal perspective, thus subjective.

Your example is simply wrong.

"Desires are reasons for action. A 'desire that P' is a mental state that provides the agent with a 'reason for action' to realize any state of affairs in which P is true. 'Altruism' is not a reason for action - not unless it is expressed in terms of a desire to help others."

Except that you consistently say desires that fulfill the desires of others are superior to other desires. So you are claiming that altruism is a higher moral value.

You cannot demonstrate moral principles or oughts the same way you can properties of nature. They are fundamentally dissimilar and none of your semantic tricks change this.

Fire is hot is an objective fact that can be determined regardless of beliefs or mental states. 'Murder is immoral' is a statement whose veracity cannot be determined objectively or independent of a human mind.

Moral objectivism/realism is as absurd as humorism or the aether.

Anonymous said...

The problem inherint in your claims of realism is that you are basing them off of non-epistemic facts. You cannot claim that your ideas are as objective as scientific conclusions until you can show us the property of good and the property of bad under a microscope.

You claim your system is realist and non-subjective simply because it is internally consistent. However your attribution of good and bad have no value outside of the semantic confines of your own system.

Therefore your basis for ascribing good and bad are both subjective and arbitrary. You have found a system of moral appraisal but cannot use objective methods to compare it to other systems of moral appraisal. You can, and have, only compared other systems to the conclusions of your own. It is highly suspect to not judge both your own and other moral systems by a more impartial rubric.

You can claim that something is good or bad when compared to your criteria but that does not make that criteria objective, scientific, or real. This is especially true since you not only go beyond a non-cognivist subjectivism (desires shaped by beliefs) to state a moral truth that desires which fulfill others are superior to other desires. Superior how? Show me how you come to this conclusion without using your own system's semantics as a basis.

Until you can show me the existence of moral facts, not descriptive values, then we can discuss realism. Until then you are postulating no objective criteria for moral evaluation and then declaring your own arbitrary criteria as objectively true, even going so far as to compare them to scientific truths.

Tell me, do you do this because you honestly don't understand the difference or are you intentionally creating a rhetorical facade to sell your ideas to others?

Your idea of ethics begs too many questions and ignores too many meta-ethical problems. Too many holes to be taken seriously I'm afraid.

Anonymous said...

People will just sit on their hands and not provide education, arbitration and other things the state has taken over?

Where does this argument come from? The fact we all tacitly value these things, and thousands are employed in these public industries prove that people will assume these roles. People become teachers and civil servants because they want to do those tasks, no different than someone who becomes a car salesman. All the things you mentioned have been done voluntarily through private means, before government welfare and in other freer societies in history

Kip said...

> You cannot claim that your ideas are as objective as scientific conclusions until you can show us the property of good and the property of bad under a microscope.

Can you show me the property of "distance", "weight", or "speed" under a microscope? Until you can do that, then all of physics is subjective.