I was recently sent a link where a fellow who makes a living publishing videos on Youtube (Jan Helfeld) interviews a former US Republican party leader (Michale Steele) about the whole issue of taxation. I found it frankly to be rather aggravating, in that they started off on an issue that Republicans on the wealthier side love to dwell on: comparing taxation to robbery.
The interviewer asks, “Do you think it’s morally wrong to initiate physical force against someone who hasn’t violated anybody’s rights?” When pressed to clarify what he is talking about, the interviewer speaks of taxation as a forcible removal of someone’s property. His interviewee then succeeds in shifting the issue over to whether taxation is a forced or voluntary process: You can choose not to pay taxes and face the consequences, or you can choose to pay your taxes as expected. This in turn leads to a comparison between tax collection and armed robbery, where the victim can either choose to surrender the wallet or risk getting shot by the robber. And this is what passes for a meaningful philosophical conversation on line these days. I’m disappointed, to say at the least.
There is a valid discussion to be had about freedom in ethics: How much freedom must a person have in order to hold a person morally responsible for his or her actions? Does a child soldier have a choice in the matter of whether or not to kill a villager in the town that his commanders are ordering him to invade? Does an alcoholic have a choice in the matter of whether to stop after his third drink of the evening? Does a woman have a choice as to whether or not to have sex with a man who is in the process of beating her and tearing open her clothes with a hunting knife? In each of these cases it is fair to say that the amount of moral decision making power for the person in question in the given situation is rather limited, and the real moral question would be how could the situation have been prevented from getting that far? If the child soldier, the alcoholic starting a bender or the rape victim can be held responsible for choosing to put themselves in the situation where they came to this regrettable state of affairs, perhaps we can still moralize against the involuntary norm violator, though that would generally be considered in very bad taste. In some other cases though, the amount of choice involved is less clear. How far can cult members’ actions be defended on the basis of their having been brainwashed? One of the main points that Immanuel Kant made regarding ethics, where as far as I know his views are largely undisputed, is that we can’t morally condemn a person for doing something in which they had no choice in the matter.
In this regard, if paying one’s taxes were somehow to be considered a sin, it is unlikely that we would hold most tax payers liable for the act, in that the situation is largely outside of their control –– especially for middle class citizens. But that really has nothing to do with the issue of the morality of tax collection, which the interview ostensibly started out to speak about. It was an ingenious propaganda move to turn the discussion in the direction of choice in the matter –– thus making it possible to compare tax men to armed robbers –– but it was a sad commentary on what counts as on-line philosophy.
The real moral question would be what counts as “not violating anybody’s rights.” Another way of asking the relevant question would be, can we really require people to provide vital help to others when they can clearly do so at no serious risk to themselves? Is there any justification for “Good Samaritan laws”?
Or let’s try an individualized thought experiment: Let’s say you are traveling in a bus when a serious accident occurs. The bus rolls over, and a number of windows get smashed, causing flying glass everywhere. You yourself are largely unharmed –– a few odd bumps and bruises maybe, but nothing serious –– but there are 10 people which are bleeding profusely, who will die if some basic first aid is not applied. There are a couple people with enough first aid training to supervise, but far more “volunteers” are needed if all of these lives are to be saved. Most of the passengers are just standing around dazed and confused and curious about what’s going on around them. As you work on applying pressure to one victim’s wounds you realize that unless you can get others to participate, most of these bleeding people are going to die. You and the active volunteers could between you save 3 or 4 lives, but if the onlookers get busy helping, all of them can be saved. You try to convince the onlookers to get involved but they just stand there. So being a relatively large person, with some training in martial arts, you decide that the only way to get the others involved is by threat of violence. You go up to a group of teenage boys standing there and you say to them menacingly, “If you don’t get over there and help stop their bleeding RIGHT NOW, you’re going to be needing your own first aid treatment when the ambulances get here!” You might even punch one of them up a bit if that is the only way to get them to take you seriously. Is that morally justifiable if it is the only way to save the lives of those on the ground bleeding? Those boys were not hurting anyone actively, but their reluctance to help out, at no risk to themselves, could still cost the others their lives. How much force then is it justifiable to use on those who just “don’t feel like helping”?
Obviously violence does not solve all such problems, but just as obviously there are times when it is morally justifiable to coerce some people to socially contribute to the protection and well-being of others, even if those things are not their direct personal responsibility. Ethics is often about some form of moral triage: doing the best we can with imperfect situations that are not ever going to be entirely fair to all involved. We try to give as many people as possible as many rights as possible, working out imperfect systems of prioritizing those rights as we go. So yes, some people’s freedoms will sometimes be compromised; and we can live with that.
So how do we decide which rights are most important? To state the obvious, those who have the most resources at their disposal are best able to defend their own rights, and so whatever they see as being in their own self interest is more likely to be stood up for than what serves the interest of the poorest. How far should we go then in trying to fix that? In some senses that is the whole point of having a democracy –– so that a small group of aristocrats cannot set the rules in whatever way serves their interests, at the expense of everyone else… in theory. In practice that has always been a bit problematic, and the system of representative democracy is probably further from living up to its own ideals now than at any point in human history.
As I wrote last week, a significant part of the problem in this regard has to do with the failures of our education systems. But if we had a group of truly informed citizens who were genuinely empowered to act in the best interest of their society through an honest and transparent system of representative government, what would they choose? Different theorists have come up with different speculative answers to this question, but we have never had an ideal enough society to ever test such theories in practice, so it remains to be seen. In practice voters tend to select those who fit most easily with the myths and prejudices that they hold dear, usually fed to them by the ruling elite. That isn’t to say that any of the theorists who decry the stupidity of the people’s choices would genuinely be able to come up with anything better for them; just that a properly functional democracy has yet to be seen.
One of the more popular ideas as to how virtuous and well-informed people would arrange their society is John Rawls’ “double blind” theory. Basically Rawls claims that to get fair rules we have to imagine what we would want things to be like if we could decide without knowing A) what sort of status we would be given at birth, and B) what we would be particularly good at. He assumes that if we were to be assigned positions and roles in life randomly, picking a ticket out of a barrel, we would want to set things up in such a way that any role could be a happy, rewarding and free one to live. This would be more important to us than making sure that those who got lucky would get really lucky. There’re just a couple problems with that. First of all, for this to really work it would have to include not just one blessedly ignorant soul, but a whole big group of them debating between themselves as to how they would like to have things arranged; the system would be based on agreement between all of those participating, not the decrees of a benevolent dictator. But as things are we don’t actually have anyone who is truly that ignorant. We all know already what side our bread is buttered on, and we can’t help but bring that knowledge into whatever decisions we make. “Ah,” Rawls might say, “but you can imagine what it would be like not to have that knowledge.” Well, perhaps… if you are raised in a high enough level of privilege to allow for that sort of abstract thinking. So inevitably what Rawls’ system would mean in practice is letting a bunch of rich guys who think the can imagine what it might be like to be poor to make all of the decisions in society. In practice that might be about the best we’re going to do, but please let’s not pretend that that is a recipe for an honestly ideal society.
A radical alternative to representative democracy as a means of fixing these problems would be orthodox Marxism: You overthrow the abusive aristocracy by force, you appoint a council of enlightened managers to run the country by decree for the good of the working classes, you establish an education system that eliminates all of the old means by which the aristocracy had previously mentally subdued the workers –– religions in particular –– and you instill into the people a love for their new system of government that meets their needs better than anything they might have chosen for themselves. Eventually they become so happy and healthy cooperating with each other that they don’t even need a government any more. Or so the theory goes.
To state the obvious, in practice this cure inevitably ends up being worse than the disease. The less a government is directly responsible to its citizens, the more corrupt it becomes, regardless of the good intentions of its founding fathers. Beyond that, any education system based on ideological indoctrination causes at least as many problems for the society as the religions they are designed to replace. And forcibly required solidarity inevitably breeds resentment within the population, especially when force and presumed solidarity are the only forms of motivation being offered to workers. So it’s not just that the Russians, the Chinese and the Cubans didn’t execute Marxist theory properly; no matter how you modify it, that dog just ain’t gonna hunt.
So do I have a system of government and social ethics to offer that is better than anything all of the world’s libertarian capitalists, Rawlsian contractarians and Marxist revolutionaries have been able to formulate? Unlikely, but I do have a few suggestions. (Truth being told, I have had plenty of other thinkers to borrow ideas from here, but I won’t name them just now so as to avoid distraction from the ideals themselves.)
To start with I’ll get back on one of my favorite hobby horses: Our education systems need to be based on open inquiry rather than rote learning of “right answers.” Yes, kids do need to see the answers we humans have already worked out to old problems that have puzzled our species in the past. It can’t be purely a process of working out their own solutions to everything. But every new set of ideas we introduce should be prefaced with an open discussion regarding how we know. How do we know that our particular perspectives on issues are the right ones? We can’t just work these things out for ourselves theoretically and spoon-feed them to our young learners; the learners need to have every opportunity to work through these processes for themselves. That process also needs to part of how we teach history, religion and social sciences. If we don’t allow our dogmas to be questioned, we’re doing as much harm as good. That’s also why I believe all schools should have philosophy lessons as part of their basic curriculum.
Once we have a group of citizens who have been trained to exercise their minds through honest inquiry in all areas of life, we need to get them into a genuine dialog with each other. Basic rules of respect for others need to be developed, not as dogmas unto themselves, but as means of searching for understandings of basic facts and solutions for important problems together. We need to instill an attitude in our young people (and in our older people who are still capable of learning) which helps them to see that not all bigotry, hate-mongering and superstition needs to be taken seriously, but even the most ignorant bigots, hate-mongers and fantasy dwellers have reasons for being what they are, and perspectives that we can learn from if we dig deep enough. The problem is merely that, life being as short as it is, we don’t really have time to search through everyone’s ideological baggage to find the valuable things hidden there, so some perspectives we just have to ignore for practical reasons. Thus things like Fox News aren’t really worth watching.
And then once we have informed citizens and open dialog established, we can begin a process of finding practical solutions for meeting our physical, emotional, existential and even spiritual needs. We can decide together on what we will and will not allow people to do to each other and to the environment we all have to live in. We can decide on a means of pooling our resources (via taxation) to take care of the sort of projects that we as a society find collectively important. We can reach some sort of compromise on what each of us has a right to do in his or her own space, bearing in mind that inevitably we all end up having some effect on each other, so none of our actions are strictly private. And once we’ve decided together what sorts of things are most important to protect, we can commit ourselves to protecting each other’s rights in those areas. This will never be a perfect or complete process, but the more we respect this as a basic method, the more functional our societies will be.
When it comes to what is right for the tax man to do, and how that compares with the armed robber then, the question of when rights are violated needs to be viewed in this sort of context. If there is a basic agreement in place that the government needs to collect revenue according to a particular formula in order to continue its basic operation of protecting certain rights, anyone who refuses to contribute according to that scheme is effectively limiting the government’s potential to protect those rights for others. So Helfeld’s starting question was not stated in a way that is relevant to the taxation issue to begin with: tax evaders are de facto violating the rights of others by preventing the government from protecting those rights, which is the government’s fundamental duty to begin with. The robber, on the other hand, is acting for personal gain, regardless of what effect that may have on people around him and the society he lives in. That gives him more in common with the tax evader than with the tax collector.
But all that assumes that there is a sensible basis in place for the operation of the government to begin with. Given the political rhetoric that has come out of the presidential primary election campaigns so far this year, it seems rather far fetched to claim that there is anything like a sensible process in place there for determining how the government should operate. Let’s hope it gets better before too much more irreparable damage is done.