Archives for category: Basic Principles

On my old hand-scripted blog Wirkman Netizen — now decommissioned — I wrote a longish post  about the slogans “Taxation Is Theft!” and “Taxation Is Robbery!” and took the contrary-to-my-comrades position. Since the main essay is offline, I guess I should repost it, here. My points are somewhat technical, but my aim is practical. Which might make it hard to categorize.

taxationistheft

Taxation Is Not Theft

Libertarians are too fond of slogans such as “Taxation is Theft” and “Taxation is Robbery.” They get quite a charge out of such maxims. And, with these maxims, they do manage to get a good idea across to some people, people who come to see that taxation is, indeed, a form of expropriation, and that it is analogous to forms of theft such as robbery, and that maybe we can do better.

Perhaps we can pay for public goods without engaging in extortion and expropriation.

But to people who really want those public goods, and who are capable of elementary distinctions in language, they are not convinced by these slogans. They are put off by them.

And they have good reason to be. Taxation is not theft. Not really.

Taxation is the expropriation of private property according to an established rate, as put into law by an established state.

Robbery and other forms of theft are illegal kinds of expropriation, and piecemeal at that. Taxation is a legal kind of expropriation.

To many libertarians, this distinction is not much of a distinction at all. They have pretty much thrown out the distinctions between legal and illegal, and are in a continual revolutionary mode of thinking, ready at a moment’s notice to throw out whole chunks of the rule of law and state practice.

So of course they equate all kinds of expropriation.

Well, not all, since libertarians do support some forms of expropriation. They have no trouble expropriating the loot of thieves from thieves, after court adjudication. And they have no trouble expropriating from a person found liable, in court, to a tort claim.

They just don’t support taxation.

My Contention: The main reason radical libertarians will not get anywhere is their complete lack of understanding of the normal mindset, which is not constantly in revolutionary mode. Radical libertarians who trot out slogans such as “taxation is theft” do not address the respect a non-revolutionary has for the rule of law.

Indeed, because of this revolutionary stance — and I’m not talking about physical, bloody revolution so much as a particular stance regarding ideas and consent — these libertarians cannot deal with normal folk.

They offend normal folk; libertarians often (and with good reason) strike normal citizens as lunatics, perhaps dangerous lunatics.

This is one reason why I choose my words more carefully — or at least differently— than radical libertarians. I wish to address normal folk in normal language. I believe it is incumbent upon me to make every step towards a revolutionary mindset clear. I wish to pull no wool over any eye. I believe we have to approach greater liberty with complete honesty. No rhetorical trickery.

And I regard slogans such as “taxation is theft” as something close to rhetorical trickery.

It may be that we will someday be able to support all worthy public projects without any taxation.

But however we manage to do this (and I’ve lots of ideas, not limited to simple slogans like “the market will take care of it”), it will have to be done within the framework of the rule of law.

And people in such a future society will have to regard the means used at that time in something other than constant revolutionary mode. Even if they can think of better ways, they will have to show some respect for the rule of law of the day.

As libertarians, by and large, do today. Most pay their taxes, if grudgingly. They are revolutionists only in speech.

Hypocrisy? Not really. But, as I’ve argued before, if it is, then this kind of hypocrisy is better than stupid, feckless revolt, or the sad parade of individualist martyrdom.

This all came to mind in the debate I mentioned on David Friedman’s Ideas blog. Writing on No Treason, John T. Kennedy has this to say about the debate:

In a comment to Friedman I point out that he has called taxation robbery and robbery is widely considered unattractive and indefensible. Does this mean that in using the word “robbery” Friedman dishonestly mischaracterized the motivations of all who support taxation? No, he correctly characterized the act of slavery.

I must add some precision here: Expropriation is not an act of slavery, but merely that, the taking of property. Slavery is the most extreme type of expropriation, perhaps, being the theft of one’s autonomy and practical ability to choose and move about, and ability to hold property justly acquired (or not). But slavery, the most extreme crime against liberty (just as murder is the most extreme crime against life), is only by analogy an act of theft.

Further, if Friedman has used the phrase “taxation is robbery,” he may indeed have erred. Not so much in terms of dishonesty, but in missing a whole element of society that most non-revolutionaries accept without much thought, but which libertarians too often rule out of consideration, give little or no thought to.

So, what is taxation again? Taxation is like theft, in that it is expropriation. But the state is not “just like a group of robbers and bandits.” It is distinct. It gains the general, practicing consent of the bulk of the populace. Most citizens of modern states remain unable to see how they can manage without the state, and many, perhaps most, treat it as a major source of their own well-being.

This makes a difference. Why? Intentions do make a difference. They add a level of meaning to interaction.

To call the state, either pointedly or by implication, nothing better a group of bandits, is to misunderstand it, first, and to antagonize its supporters, second. The “taxation is theft” mantra does more than just imply that “the state is a robber band.” Why? Because everyone knows that the power of the state comes from taxation. That is the basic power, the foundation of the rest. That is why, in fact, one of the basic powers that the colonials wished for their states, in union as well as separate, when they seceded from Britain in 1776, was the power (indeed, right) to tax.

How much better to avoid the mantra, and say something like this: “Yes, too often, the state does behave like bandits; too often its very mode of existence encourages a banditry ethos in society, making us all worse off through internecine expropriation and conflict.” By toning down the language of invective a bit, we go back to simile and revert from bold metaphor treated as stark, unliterary truth.

After all, “Taxation is theft” is a metaphor. It is not a logical identity. To presume such is to engage in a philosophical error, and to misunderstand a crucial element of normativity in society.

Libertarians will not succeed until this error is consistently avoided, and a more reasonable dialectic becomes dominant in the movement — that is, a more reasonable and nuanced way of dealing with those people whom libertarians say they want to convince.

twv

Links

This has appeared twice on the Net before, at wirkman.net and wirkman.com [dead links]

Brian Doherty discussed it briefly on Reason’s Hit and Run.

I discussed it on video, in my usual semi-coherent fashion, here:

And last year I discussed this essay, quoting it in part, here: “Taxation Is…

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One does not normally insure against chosen and regularly incurred costs, like fill-ups and oil changes in cars . . . or haircuts, waxes, and contraceptive devices on people. When insurance companies’ policies do cover regular, pre-injury/-illness purchases, they are not economically engaging in an insurance contract. They are offering a payment system, a kind of premium savings plan.

Why would they do that? Sometimes to attract customer with a convenience — an expensive convenience they expect to make money off of. But also for another reason: because they are compelled by law.

The corruption of the insurance industry by government policy has been ongoing for decades.

Especially in medical markets.

How? At a fundamental level.

Economist Friedrich Freiherr von Wieser (Social Economics, 1928, p. 149) noted that there are three kinds of “binding compensatory contracts”: exchange contracts, insurance contracts, and social contracts. Wieser noted that insurance contracts sometimes look like social contracts, sometimes like exchanges. But the resemblance to explicit social contracts is that they mimic the widespread effects usually aimed at by social contractors, but through private exchanges. An ingenious invention. Insurance provides a public good by private means. The core nature of insurance contracts Wieser explains thusly:

Its purpose is to distribute the effects of loss over many private economies. It has attained great importance in developed economies. But it has to do only with the security of the economic body, not with its creation.

Wieser did not examine this form of contract in detail. He also, in developing economic theory, put aside discussion of the social contract:

One should expect that it be adopted to the integration of the social economy. Nevertheless in its effect it has been overshadowed by the exchange contract, which although as a rule is made only between two parties, has manifested itself the coördinating instrument that binds individual economies into the national economy.

This manifestation of unexpected and unintended coördination puzzles many people. Which is perhaps one reason why, as Wieser’s student F. A. Hayek suggested, we witness much social distress regarding — and political pressure to undermine and control — market order. The coördination provided by markets is “spontaneous,” as Hayek metaphorically put it (“inadvertent” is more exact), and its mechanisms and processes mysterious, in no small part because of its inadvertence. Folks balk at accepting an unplanned order.

This is especially true of insurance contracts, which often seem “unfair.” For example, I was a very good and safe driver as a young man, ages 16–28. Never an accident. Never even a complaint. But an appreciable number of my peers drove recklessly (but not “wrecklessly”!), skewing the actuarial tables that make insurance bets doable, so my insurance rates were high. Young women, on the other hand, had far lower rates — despite my personal knowledge of many dangerous young female drivers.

But I understood the unfairness, and rallied through. Meanwhile, during that same period, feminists pushed through in my state regulations that forced insurers and their customers to pay equal rates, disregarding the sexes. Young women tend to have more medical issues, especially regarding pregnancy — which, one should note, are usually the result of free choices, not wholly accidental events — and thus are greater risks for insurance companies, requiring higher rates.

But . . . unfair!

For some reason, feminists did not push for a forced equalization of auto insurance rates.

So, consider what that regulation did: it increased the pool of insured people, bracketing out of consideration reliable data upon which insurance businesses calculated profitable rates. So, it decreased the information content of insurance rates — prices, really — and made the business decisions less efficient, and less capable of adding efficiency over the course of time.

And by equalizing men’s and women’s rates, it swept into the mix a mostly non-insurable expense: pregnancy and birth. One insures for things out of one’s control. And, except in case of rape, one can choose not to engage in sexual intercourse, the activity that causes pregnancy. So, under modern regulatory requirements, more and more people are swept into the pool with more social contract problems associated with such pools: that is, “the tragedy of the commons.” When some gain at the expense of others, they tend to opt to do just that. A common resource subject to individual exploitation tends to degrade, as has been understood since the time of Aristotle, but clarified by William F. Lloyd, Garret Hardin, and Richard Stroup. In the case here made as an example, what would normally be unforeseeable and insured-for is now intermingled with eventualities placed under a woman’s or couple’s control. Thus they are able to game the system and free ride off of it. Basically, shifting their avodiable medical expenses onto other people who do not choose to produce babies.

This jiggering with the insurance industry basics changes its very nature. But not without costs.

And it is certainly not limited to just the one example. Tax policy, regulation and now subsidy have been contriving to turn medical insurance contracts wholly into social contracts. And politicians and activists have succeeded in convincing many simpletons and distracted citizens into thinking insurance should cover events that no honest business would cover — events such as already existing disabilities, or expenses that are wholly voluntary.

Remember: One cannot “insure” against the present; one cannot “insure” against controlled outcomes. It is only future uncontrolled events with assignable probabilities that make sense to insure. Only these eventualities that can make for stable, long-term and sustainable and efficiently provided buffering of the effects of loss or injury.

But, to repeat, tax law, regulations and now subsidy — by state and federal governments — have so twisted the industry that it now is a badly run redistribution scheme, something one would normally expect from governments pretending to enforce “social contracts.”

Wieser’s “coördinating instrument” of the exchange system, and the pricing (in this case) of insurance rates, has been scuttled by people more comfortable with the seemingly “rational” — but much more ungainly and discoördinative — government policy. Also, the instrumentality of force quickens the vindictive soul, spurring folks to demand a great cause — fairness, justice. Which allows, naturally enough, for the heady mix of self-righteousness and outright oppression (for what else is forcing others?) as well as the precious social signaling that moral crusades engender.

But because information is thereby decreased, and the tragedy of the commons introduced into the industry, society is corrupted, hobbled, injured.

The very opposite result, you might think, of medical insurance policy.

And witless Americans carry on with the fiction and lies. As if they were being smart and wise. Anyone who repeats the current wisdom about medical “insurance” — such as demanding “coverage” for a wholly voluntary aid, like contraception — is a dupe or a liar.

twv

IMG_3239

Friedrich von Wieser portrayed at top, in sketch; the current blogger immediately above.

EvergreenProtest

Power is the ability to get things done. If, in the course of fighting power you win, or your side wins, you then achieve power. If your objection to power is pure and simple, if you see all power/non-power relationships as “oppression,” then it follows that any attack upon power becomes oppressive at success. When you win, you have achieved something. You got something done. You have exerted power.

And, in politics, one achievement tends to lead to more achievement. In government, the point of “being in power” is to exert power. So the success at fighting oppression (so conceived) immediately transforms into oppression itself.

This is so obvious that one wonders how it never seems to cross the minds of the current batch of “social justice” activists now causing havoc on campuses and in the streets.

Either they would have to accept their revolutionary status as masters, as “the powerful,” whenever they get their way, or they would have to revise their theories of power, freedom, and oppression.

I recommend to them careful transactional analysis, not crude, class analysis with concepts derived from Karl Marx by way of the Frankfurt School and the Sorbonne.

twv

The origin of a thing or practice does not always and obviously provide strong clues to the reason for its growth and then for its survival. Theories of ethics, for example, are littered with monocausal accounts of “the foundations of ethics” that fail to separate the various distinct causes and levels of operation.

Take that very institution (or human endeavor, or practice) we call “ethics” or “morality” — consisting of rules, ideals, norms, and reasonings and rationales for action. Its origin may be seen in the simple need to influence human behavior, of self and others. Think of the body of ethical precepts as a toolkit. But the reasons why one ethical system flourishes and others wilt may have surprisingly little to do with the aim of the moralizers who cook up, repeat, and transmit their normative notions. And those reasons may not be the same as their explicit justification.

These distinctions can often only be seen as we pass through time, as various stages of the social life of the memes become evident. (Maybe we should speak of the ordinal, not cardinal, virtues!)

IMG_3224Similarly, the first people to adopt a belief, habit or good are very different in nature from later adopters. The distinction between early-, mid- and late-term adopters is of huge importance for understanding fashion and other consumer behavior, as well as ideologies. Businesses that do not figure in these different consumer bases will suffer. Critics who do not understand this will find themselves irrelevant. Voters find themselves . . . stuck with bad candidates and poor policies.

On a macro level, this trend in consumption allows the masses to benefit from investments that they themselves would never make, nor would ever, alone, entice from capitalists. Only the strong preferences and spending of early adopters allow the success of many goods that later circulate to everybody. In effect, late adopters and skinflints are “subsidized” by the early adopters and the prodigal.

This element of capitalist development is integral to fulfilling one of its defining functions, mass production for the masses. Attempts to “rationalize” the economy in a social engineering way often assume an egalitarian customer base, and thus start with the lower rungs of development kicked away from the ladder of progress.

“Price discrimination,” particularly what amounts to  intertemporal price discrimination (what is the exact technical term? I wonder — separate time-frame equilibria?), is key to the functioning of markets.

Many class resentments and tensions come from a lack of acceptance about this diversity in human judgment and consumer function.

And much confusion results from mixing up the nature of the origins, the persistence, and the expressed and unexpressed rationales for any human practice or institution.

twv

Illustration courtesy James Littleton Gill, My Monster Problem — and Ours

The problems here addressed are so huge that one simple blog post, indicating them as if with a wave of the hand, hardly does them justice. Clearer statements can be made later, or elsewhere — and no doubt have been, by others.


Isn’t it by a legal fiction that the accused are, in this country, said to be “innocent until proven guilty”? The fiction is important.

Similarly, it is by dialogic fiction that you are instructed to regard 

  • your interlocutor as honest, 
  • open to new information as well as unfamiliar logic, and as 
  • earnest in a desire to resolve cognitive dissonances.

Further, in political argumentation, we assume that everybody wants everyone else to be healthy, wealthy and wise. We assume good will.

All these assumptions about arguers have been shown to be incorrect. 

Our biases have been exhaustively examined by psychologists, and our intellectual limitations demonstrated as surprisingly vast. Similarly, the glee with which people wish to harm some others puts the lie to any universal notion of good will. And, to add a twist to the knife, some of us old arguers have come to expect the most ugliness from the loudest professors of benevolence; we know that ill will is ever-present in politics and government, at least.

And yet the dialogic fiction of benevolence retains its importance. It provides the groundwork for change, and for the reciprocity that is necessary for a free society.

And it is not just “those others” who are nudged to better behavior. Even when only one person in a debate behaves according to the fiction of general good will, that person is improved. 

twv

A late, lamented neighbor of mine once defined “just war” as “mere war.” That was a quip.

A rather cynical one.

When I read just war theory, as a teenager, the most important point, I determined (in this rarefied and rarely consulted domain of thought), was this:

In contemplating intervention into a conflict with which one’s own country is not directly involved, it is not enough merely to determine which side is more nearly in the right. One must also have good reason to believe that, by intervening, one’s State could win and establish a stable and  just peace.

Even if you know who is in the wrong, if there is no likely way of “winning,” or if one’s intervention is not likely efficacious to establish a peace, entering into the conflict is immoral.

A recent study of just war theory and history by Laurie Calhoun suggests that most uses of the tradition, especially in recent times, have been to cover for gross, murderous immorality. Not to limit warfare.

As near as I can make out, this is largely because the tradition is almost never treated seriously or rigorously in the manner indicated above.

It is telling that I have not once heard, in recent public discussion over the Syrian intervention, one mention of just war theory.

twv


The newly sworn-in President of the United States has been saying quite a few idiotic things, and doing some interesting things, as well. I wish to look at only one of the things he has said: “Torture absolutely works.”

“Does torture work? . . . Absolutely I feel it works.”

In his favor, he had asked “people at the highest level of intelligence” whether torture works, and that was their answer, “Yes.”

And Sen. Rand Paul responded with a resounding “No,” citing more specific studies.

Now, to me the question is irrelevant. Whether torture gives us good information or misinformation or even poisoned disinformation, torture is an abridgment of human rights. Furthermore, it has a long history of harming innocents; as Rand Paul noted, recent torture procedures in rendition zones turned out to have harmed quite a number of innocent — misidentified or set up — suspects. Our whole system of jurisprudence developed around the idea of protecting innocents from incorrect punishment and outrageous moral horrors. And the method of torture is not just using pain and damage and fear to gain information, the method is also one of secret proceedings apart from normal judicial processes.

When we say torture abridges human rights, we are not merely expressing a preference, or establishing some arbitrary cultural norms. There is a reason for our rights-imputation to counter torture. For we find that not only does torture harm innocents, it abuses the guilty and — more obviously than anything else — it empowers government personnel to take license rather than uphold justice. Torture corrupts.

And one of the grounds of universal human rights is to prevent the corruption of that most dangerous of institutions, the State. To give government functionaries the lattitude to torture foreigners or citizens gives them way too much power, power that we know very well cannot be handled by frail humanity.

So, when POTUS Trump — or even Rand Paul — pretends that “does torture work?” is a relevant question, we should be very concerned. Torture should be opposed even if it does give government functionaries “reliable information.”

Further, the language of Trump is, obviously and characteristically, sloppy in the extreme. Who cares if he “feels” torture works? On important matters we must demand higher epistemic standards than “feels.”

And there is no way that this contentious issue can be responded to with an “Absolutely.” There have to be some points of contention here. Nothing I have read in the literature surrounding torture gives me enough confidence to use the word “absolute,” in adverbial form or otherwise.

Thankfully, Sen. Rand Paul expresses a reasonable desire to extend more oversight over the federal government’s intelligence community. If “people at the highest level” of this community have a hankering to torture — as their confident answer seems to suggest — we must indeed keep a close watch on them .

twv

“No Peaceful Transition,” promised the protest/riots organizers’ Web page, earlier this evening. The page later ditched the motto.

Since the 1960s we have been living a myth: protests that disrupt public traffic and private ingress/egress are “non-violent” and heroic. But the myth is merely a self-serving story, a crucial lie, that those on the left tell themselves and everybody else, thereby taking license to lord it over others.

We now witness the moral depravity that is at the heart of the notion.

Protesting something is staying on the sidelines and making your views known. Rioting is a mob abridging others’ rights. Most unlicensed protests turn riot because they are riot in ovo.

The mob is now a tyrant, and the worm, as they say, may soon turn — the worm, here, being the masses of truly peaceful people, who may now at last see the tyranny at the heart of the self-righteous mob.

The culture war may be going bloody this week. Someone was shot at a Milo protest in Seattl. We will see how far the violence goes.

“No peaceful transition” indeed.


Mr. Sotomayor has a dim view of the rioters:

The Young Turks seem to accept the nonsense from the folks dressed mostly in black:

But here is video without commentary:

The history of philosophy is that of geniuses getting so close . . . but missing the mark.

Hence, my appreciation of a thinker is often not “do I agree” but “can I learn” from encountering said thinker’s work.

It is not for nothing that I am apt to say appreciative things about Jeremy Bentham but not William Godwin. Is Godwin uninteresting? Never, on occasion, correct? Irrelevant. It is merely that making sense of Bentham and where he went both wrong and right is much more edifying.

Thus, often we must look for truth, but keep a special eye out for the interesting and profitable mistakes, even blunders.

The two most interesting failures in political philosophy, in the last two centuries? Herbert Spencer and John Rawls. I am not sure anyone else comes even close.

The errors of great men are venerable because they are more profitable than the truths of little men. — Friedrich Nietzsche


When a friend or sibling advises me how to be safe, I attribute the concern as earnest, perhaps even as “heartfelt.”

When my insurance agent advises me in a similar manner, I infer self-interest on his part.

In both cases, I consider the advice in a spirit of equanimity and good feeling.

But when an agent of the government lectures me on safety, I check for ready exits, and eye any official weaponry with deep suspicion.

twv