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The Vision Behind Oregon’s Measure 66

January 17, 2010

First of all – to whoever reads this, I could care less which way you decide to vote on these measures. I think that assumptions of ill intent by anyone on either side of Measures 66 and 67 are foolish, and distract people from carefully weighing the issues logically. 

As anyone who knows me might have guessed – I’m not exactly enthralled with the two ballot measures, 66 and 67, which are currently facing Oregon’s voters. I have been trying to think them over for a while now, but I tend to think most clearly when I force myself to write my thoughts. Of course – before you read any further – you should read the actual bills yourself. Here is Measure 66, and here is Measure 67.

At this point, you have probably heard the talking point arguments from either side of the issue. Namely, that your choice is between hurting schools, teachers, and students (by voting against 66 and 67) or hurting corporations, jobs, and the rich (passing 66 and 67). Both arguments may be true, but I think there are some deeper concepts to consider.

“The most basic question is not what is best, but who shall decide what is best.”

 -Thomas Sowell

In my opinion, all political and legislative ideas should be judged by two key factors.

  1. The vision they are built on
  2. Their practical seen and unseen results

In this post – I am going to discuss the vision behind Measure 66. It is important to understand that by ‘vision,’ I do not mean the stated goals or intent of the policies. In fact – whatever the stated goal of policy happens to be, is almost entirely irrelevant to whether or not it is a good policy which would achieve that goal. When I say ‘vision,’ I am referring to the actual fundamental assumptions about society, law, and justice that the policy is built on.

Measure 66

Measure 66 raises taxes on a certain group of people who earn above a specified amount of income. In my view, there are several problems with the vision behind this bill, primarily, the vision of Law. Firstly, this tax is progressive in nature, as it singles out a specific group of people to be taxed at a higher rate than another group. From the way I view law, I believe progressive taxes are unjust.

The Law (including tax law) is meant to be an instrument of justice. Here the definition of “just” is especially helpful: 

“Equitable: fair to all parties as dictated by reason and conscience; “equitable treatment of all citizens.”  

A just Law then is the application of force against the inequitable treatment of citizens, or the violation of individual natural rights, such as life, liberty, or in this case, property. Friederic Bastiat wrote far more eloquently about this concept in the 1800s (Please excuse the long quote):

What, then, is law? It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.

Each of us has a natural right — from God — to defend his person, his liberty, and his property. These are the three basic requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two. For what are our faculties but the extension of our individuality? And what is property but an extension of our faculties? If every person has the right to defend even by force — his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly. Thus the principle of collective right — its reason for existing, its lawfulness — is based on individual right. And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force — for the same reason — cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups.

Such a perversion of force would be, in both cases, contrary to our premise. Force has been given to us to defend our own individual rights. Who will dare to say that force has been given to us to destroy the equal rights of our brothers? Since no individual acting separately can lawfully use force to destroy the rights of others, does it not logically follow that the same principle also applies to the common force that is nothing more than the organized combination of the individual forces?

If this is true, then nothing can be more evident than this: The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense. It is the substitution of a common force for individual forces. And this common force is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties, and properties; to maintain the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over us all.

– Frederick Bastiat, The Law

I can think of many rationalizations for a certain group of people to be forced to turn over a greater percentage of their earnings to the State, but not one which is just. Some people argue that the wealthy actually live on a different percentage of their income, than say, a poorer middle-class person, and are less affected by higher taxes. Whether or not this is factually accurate, it hardly justifies the majority deciding what percentage they actually need to live on, or what shall be taken.

“The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.”  

-Ayn Rand

Essentially, Measure 66 and all progressive taxes, agree that it is right for third parties (lawmakers or the majority of voters) to determine for other individuals (first parties) what constitutes ‘enough’ income to be taxed at a higher rate. Of course I believe in representative government, but only one which represents the whole equally as individuals, and not one group of citizens vs. another based on class criteria.

Furthermore, I cannot think of a real justification for choosing $250,000, other than the assumption that this amount of money is high enough that a) the taxed party doesn’t need the money, or can ‘afford it’, and b) it won’t effect the majority of people voting to pass the Measure. The first reason subtly agrees that a progressive tax is unjust – but then attempts to rationalize it. And the second is nothing more than shrewd politicking.

The unfortunate consequences of Measure 66 passing or failing are real, and shouldn’t be minimized. If it passes – I believe that it will have an unseen negative effect on jobs (which are already in terrible shape) throughout the state. But there is no doubt – if it fails, it will certainly have a seen negative effect on teachers and schools. As with most government policy – we are left to vote on a loose-loose measure. If anything – this illustrates another simple truth about life:

“There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs.”

-Thomas Sowell

As I mentioned in the beginning – in no way could I judge anyone for voting one way or the other on this measure.  The trade-offs of Measure 66 (as well as 67) are difficult to judge, but neither are without negative consequences. I can only state my own judgment and reasoning. Personally, I think 66 represents a deeply flawed vision of society and law. I am not arguing that people who vote for 66 are necessarily approving this vision. However, I believe that American society should be ‘progressing,’ or moving away from laws which divide citizens by class and set up one group against another. I think Bastiat again rightly illuminates this issue:

“But, unfortunately, law by no means confines itself to its proper functions. And when it has exceeded its proper functions, it has not done so merely in some inconsequential and debatable matters. The law has gone further than this; it has acted in direct opposition to its own purpose. The law has been used to destroy its own objective: It has been applied to annihilating the justice that it was supposed to maintain; to limiting and destroying rights which its real purpose was to respect. The law has placed the collective force at the disposal of the unscrupulous who wish, without risk, to exploit the person, liberty, and property of others. It has converted plunder into a right, in order to protect plunder. And it has converted lawful defense into a crime, in order to punish lawful defense.”

– Frederick Bastiat, The Law

I realize that this opinion may seem grandiose and/or ideological. But I simply believe that the greater trade-off in the long-run is not just “education vs. jobs”, but a free people, and a system of just laws. And I think it is a serious problem that we have lawmakers who write policy of this nature. 

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve Robinson permalink
    January 23, 2010 4:24 am

    Believing as you do, you should support Measure 66 at least, as a way of restoring more balance to our state and local tax system. The wealthy currently pay only about 6 percent, compared to the average of 7.9 percent. Low-income people pay a bit more.

    M66 won’t get all the way there, but it will go part of the way, as well as providing over $1 billion in additional economic activity Oregon desperately needs to retain the few jobs we have left.

  2. Ed DeCoste permalink
    January 28, 2010 5:49 pm

    Steve, Where did you get those numbers from.

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