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On Taxes, and Greed vs. Power

April 15, 2009

Today is tax day, and two days ago (April 13th) was tax freedom day (the day you finnish working for the government, and start for yourself). Couple that with the throngs of people attending the many ‘Tea Party’ protests around the nation – it seems like a logical point in time to briefly discuss why conservatives are very much opposed to high taxation. Furthermore, even if I were the protesting type, I feel that a rational discussion of these ideas cannot be boiled down into a sign that you may catch a glance of, as you drive by.

Firstly, it is important to understand that conservatives are not anti-taxation. Obviously, government does have a function – and must be funded to carry out it’s function. Therefore, the rift in thinking on this issue consists of two basic underlying principals: Private Property Rights, and The Functions of Government.

Private Property Rights

I have discussed Private Property Rights at greater length in the second part of my series titled: Why Reject Socialism: Economic Freedom vs. Economic Equality. Rather than repeat myself here – I encourage you to read that section first, if you wish to get a fuller discussion. The conservative philosophy on Private Property Rights breaks down to these summarized points (note – this list isn’t meant to be a strict logical progression):

  • Private Property is the result of a man’s labor
  • A man’s labor is the result of a man’s rational mind, acting on free choices (in this case, to be productive)
  • Thus – The Right to Private Property is really the unalienable right of an individual to the product of that individual’s own mind
  • Therefore – the government, being the only institution with the power to take by force, must only be allowed the absolute minimum amount control of an individual’s mind.

That’s just a summary of the viewpoint – but hopefully, you can see how a conservative would view Private Property Rights, and Human Rights as totally inseparable.

The Functions of Government

Though people may differ in some aspect on the conservative view of private property – the functions, or role of government, is where the real disputes appear to be. One of the reasons that conservatives oppose higher taxation, is that the tax money goes from individuals to fund programs that should not lie within the function of government.

Most often – these programs are created out of a desire to ‘fix‘ what some view as a social or societal ill. When these programs are discussed – they are done so in a manner that implies a higher moral necessity, (such as – social justice) thus justifying the program’s existence. Government programs for social problems like: poverty, drugs, health-care, and the environment, are all justified by this moral imperative. However, by far the most common morally justified government crusade is said to combat ‘greed’.

Obviously, thousands of words have been written over this subject, but I think Thomas Sowell accurately relates the conservative’s concern (emphasis mine):

One of the last refuges of someone whose pet project or theory has been exposed as economic nonsense is to say: “Economics is all very well, but there are also non-economic values to consider.” Presumably, these are supposed to be higher and nobler concerns that soar above the level of crass materialism. Of course there are non-economic values. In fact, there are only non-economic values…. Economics does not say you should make the most money possible…. What lofty talk about “non-economic values” usually boils down to is that some people do not want their own particular values weighed against anything.

[…]

“Lofty talk about “non-economic values” too often amounts to very selfish attempts to impose one’s own values, without having to weigh them against other people’s values. Taxing away what other people have earned, in order to finance one’s own fantasy ventures, is often depicted as a humanitarian endeavor, while allowing others the same freedom and dignity as oneself, so they can make their own choices with their own earnings, is considered to be pandering to “greed.” Greed for power is more dangerous than greed for money and has shed far more blood in the process. Political authorities have often had “revolutionary values” that were devastating to the general population.”

-Thomas Sowell

For some reason, people seem to view private parties as the only entity capable of greed. Likewise, many people view the government as somehow above and exempt from any form of ‘greed’. Of course, this assumption is utter rubbish to anyone who has even the faintest grasp of governments throughout history. J. R. R. Tolkien hit the nail on the head in the opening of The Fellowship of The Ring:

“Nine rings were gifted to the race of men, who above all else desire power.”

Even in America, where our founders were wise enough to create a system of checks and balances, a constitution, and bill of rights designed to limit the power of government – the government still remains the single most powerful entity. Conservatives view, as Sowell correctly states, the greed for power, as far more dangerous than the greed for money and property.

T.S. Elliot said:

Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm– but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.

While private corporations can be greedy for money, they do not have the power of force to take money from your pocket, as the government does. Thus – the functions and role of government, from the conservative perspective, ought to be limited only to those things that are absolutely necessary to protecting the existence of a civil and free society.

Historian, Paul Johnson wrote:

“The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.”

At this point – most people will begin to argue that, since “money is power,” certain social programs actually help equalize the playing field and protect the individual. I will concede that this could be possible. However, these programs must be judged by their end results, and not by the nobility of their intentions. While I don’t have the time here to present the data –  in most cases, it can be shown that the end results are not worth the tax money invested.

Milton Friedman also talkes about this idea extensively in this video that I discussed previously:

Thus, for the most part, conservatives believe that increasing taxes does two things.

  1. It takes away property – and thus the rights of the individual to the product of their mind.
  2. It increases the power of the government through massive programs, which do not provide results justifying their existence.

In my view – this is really a bi-partison idea. I personally think that you and I, are far better judges of what to spend our money on, than the federal government. The problem with federal programs is that they cannot possibly account for the vast diversity of the people under them. (Take for instance, No Child Left Behind. How in the world can the federal government possibly account for the needs of each individual school – let alone each student?) The more localized and individual a solution can be, the better.

So when I hear about how a new government solution (requiring more taxes) is coming that will ‘fix’ things – I believe the response, “Thanks, but no thanks!” is justified by history, as well as a sober view of society and reality.

Consider this my Tea Party sign. I would hope that these ideas are discussed at the protests today.

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