Yesterday the Dish quoted Gregg Easterbrook:
Wealthy people who say the rich should pay higher taxes — Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have joined Obama in declaring this — are free to tax themselves. If you believe the top rate should rise to 39.6 percent (Obama) or 50 percent (Buffett), then calculate the difference and send a check for that amount to the Treasury. Of course no one individual doing this, even a billionaire, would have much impact on the deficit. But if rich people who say they believe in higher taxes were willing to practice what they preach, this would prove their sincerity, making legislation on the point more likely.
Presumably Obama and Buffett don’t send such checks to the Treasury because they believe they have better things to do with that money. Being a candidate for president can get expensive, after all–and Mr. Buffett probably thinks his vast charitable donations do considerably more worthwhile good than Uncle Sam would, dollar for dollar.
But the double standard is telling: While Obama and Buffett think they’re putting their own money to better use than the US Treasury would, they don’t support other billionaire and multi-millionaires’ right to make their own call. Their support for higher taxes is thus a transparent desire to appropriate other people’s money for government use (which they apparently have greater faith in when it comes to other people’s, but not their own).
This brings me back to something Lev wrote while blogging about Atlas Shrugged:
When you get down to it, Objectivism and Communism are utopias of different forms. One says not to help out anyone, to let them stand on their own two feet. But this ignores the human tendency toward compassion, a strong urge in most people.
I’ve never read Ayn Rand or anything Objectivist, and don’t much care about them or the latest in bad cinema (my guys are Friedman and Hayek). But insofar as libertarianism is thought to parallel Objectivism here, let me address it.
Libertarianism is fine with the human tendency towards compassion. We say you should have ample freedom to be compassionate with your own resources; the giving of your money and time to charitable causes (or if you’re feeling terribly inefficient, to the U.S. Treasury) is perfectly appropriate and laudable. (Although libertarianism per se is amoral, taking no stance on what you do with your money–only that you should have the freedom to choose.)
What libertarians don’t support (indeed, vehemently oppose) is the pernicious idea that taxes should force other people to put their resources towards your (or a democratic majority’s) preferred statist ends. Being a good Samaritan with other people’s time and money is a morally worthless and tragically misguided cause–most especially when it results in absurd implicit marginal tax rates. Europe is, of course, worse. Basically, our human tendency toward compassion should always be charitable–never forced nor an entitlement.
Now, U.S. tax law is far from perfect and in dire need of overhaul. Pretty much everybody agrees on this except the makers of Turbo Tax, H&R Block, and lobbyists for companies benefiting from write-offs (e.g. General Electric, as was recently in the news). So let’s fix those things, and let’s bring revenue and spending on a sustainable path. But all this is independent of the misguided idea of taxation in the name of compassion. We can easily do it with flatter effective tax rates. And from a standpoint of sheer utilitarian economic efficiency, we should.
“Look, we are not doing such a good job being government these days,” Paul explained. “We make promises and we don’t know about the future.” “Would you consider opting out of the whole system under one condition?” Paul then asked, introducing his plan. “You pay 10% of your income, but you take care of yourself. Don’t asked the government for anything.”Leaving aside the cryptic argument of the first two sentences–that make absolutely no sense whatsoever in the combination they’re in–this is just fucking nuts. What, does taking the deal mean you forfeit the ability to use sewage systems? Does that mean the police can’t help you when you’re getting mugged? What about national defense? I mean, maybe that’s what the 10% is for (though there’s not much ambiguity when he says the whole system), but this is so very, very stupid. It’s libertarianism taken to the N-th degree, and it’s insane. (No joke: I’m seriously wondering if the guy is starting to lose his marbles. These remarks read like someone about to have a stroke.) So, naturally, the response was that “the crowd of libertarian youth packing the CPAC hall for his speech went wild.” At this level, libertarianism goes from being a logical (if extreme, in my opinion) way of viewing the world to being something you have to turn off your brain to get into. Not unlike a Star Wars prequel (and I promise I’ll stop using that comparison). Sheesh.
Lovely email at the Dish today:
Where does Rick Hertzberg think society’s ability to give people “enough to eat and a roof over their heads” comes from, if not from those economic liberties and rights he holds as secondary? It’s all from the surplus created by the division of labor and comparative advantage. The overflowing abundance that marks modern society – where people like Hertzberg can make a comfortable living writing for The New Yorker without ever cultivating his own food, weaving his own clothes, building his own home, and so on – would not exist if not for the continued protection of free enterprise and private property. (And he dares to quote Adam Smith in his follow-up post!?)A-fucking-men, as Sullivan adds. I also want to associate myself with this post by Radley Balko.
Free enterprise comes before voting.
If I can steal generously from Hayek for a second, society didn’t develop the complexity that it has today because everyone in a small village in 2,500 B.C., or 100 A.D., or 1640s New England got together and voted to divide their time and effort in order to provide goods and services for exchange; this happens organically. This happens because it has proven, over thousands of years, to be the most efficient and mutually-beneficial means of getting past subsistence and reaching a better life. Without this, there is no possibility for organized self-government and modern civil rights.
In what possible viable world view could the “right to vote” be valued more favorably than property rights and the freedom of enterprise? Let’s leave the philosophical for a second and look at this empirically: What impact does my right to vote have on the world? Very little. I live in a gerrymandered Democratic district, as a classically liberal Republican. My school board has had the same self-interested bozos in office for twenty years. Forget about the U.S. Senate; the only numbers that matter in the Senate are the size of the caucuses, and not the relative impact of my vote in Pennsylvania. My various executives – county, state, federal – merely preside over a rapidly-growing administrative state that is increasingly autonomous, practically speaking, and far too complicated for any particular chief executive to influence at more than a 10,000-foot broad policy level.
Honestly, the only two reasons I even make the effort to vote are 1) that I want to enter politics and thus need to cover my tracks, lest I be criticized someday, and 2) if I vote in 50 straight elections in Pennsylvania, I’ll get a certificate when I’m 68 years old. It’s nothing more than a frivolous little game and good cocktail party fodder.
Let’s be clear: of course, the right to vote and popular sovereignty are vital, and in a healthy republic, inviolable. But without free enterprise and private property, they are practically meaningless.
I don’t have a ton to say on the subject of Ayn Rand, but I think the right answer to the question Kevin Drum asks here is that you have to understand Rand primarily as part of the intellectual backlash to 1950s comformism. Even though her specific political views were quite different, she should be seen as a peer of the beatniks and similar movements. That’s part of the reason why if you look at the fact that the main way her intellectual influence works is as a writer who appeals to young people. I know very few people who are Randians today, but a great many people who loved Rand as a teenager and for whom she served as a “gateway drug” to the much more sophisticated arguments of Nozick, Hayek, Friedman, etc.This seems right, though I’ve never actually read Rand (which has become a strange point of pride for me).
Anyone who’s sitting around as an adult and actually taking their political cues from Atlas Shrugged is being ridiculous (and there are indeed a lot of ridiculous people out there adhering to all kinds of political viewpoints) but I think you need to see at first and foremost as part of the literature of youth rebellion.
By contrast, Milton Friedman is basically my personal hero. That would seem to corroborate coming to a considered libertarianism in my 20s, with no Randian rebellious youth phase (unlike our host!)
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