Taxation Is Not Theft

In last August's post "Spread the Wealth", I talked about the justifications for redistributive taxation. I felt that some of the issues raised in the comments deserved to be revisited - and since it's tax time here in the U.S., it's worth a reminder of why we pay them and what we get out of it.

The centerpiece of the libertarian rhetorical strategy is to refer to taxation as theft, robbery, slavery. I've heard these epithets and others like them many times. It's easy to see what purpose this serves: to make your concerns seem more important, it helps to refer to them not as bloodless policy differences, but as raw issues of justice. "The government is stealing from innocent people!" is a lot punchier and packs more emotional heft than any proposal, no matter how passionately worded, to simplify unnecessary regulations and cut down on bureaucratic red tape.

But this overheated claim is being asked to bear far more weight than it can possibly support. Of all the libertarian policy proposals out there (many others of which I agree with), the equation of taxation with theft is the least defensible. The fallacies in this should be obvious to a moment's thought, but some people seem unwilling to take that moment, so I'll go over them again in this post.

Libertarians say that taxation is like theft because it takes property from the unwilling. What they ignore, time and time again, is the crucial role of democratic consent. Taxes are not arbitrary impositions decreed by a faceless government. Rather, taxes are the dues we pay in exchange for membership in a society and access to all the services it offers.

The situation can be compared to a private club that charges a membership fee in exchange for providing benefits and amenities to its members. Obviously, the club is within its rights to charge whatever price it believes fair in exchange for this. If you believe the price is too high, you're free to renounce your membership and leave the club. What you're not free to do is to refuse to pay, but demand that you still be allowed to sit in the club and use its facilities. Nor are you free, if the club doesn't offer this option, to decide that you only use some of its services - only the swimming pool, say, but not the sauna or the tennis courts - and should therefore have the right to pay a prorated membership fee. But these options, clearly absurd in this thought experiment, are the same ones libertarians claim they have a right to exercise in the real world.

The analogy of the club can be transferred in a precise way to society as a whole. Society is the club, and taxes are the membership dues we pay in exchange for the services it provides. If you don't want to pay, if you dislike its terms, you can leave that society and seek another one. But you are not free to unilaterally demand that society rewrite its terms to favor your particular preferences.

Going hand-in-hand with the fallacious equation of taxation to theft is another libertarian fallacy: the belief that a free market is the natural state of affairs and will spontaneously arise if only the economy is left to itself. This is wrong. A free market is a kind of infrastructure, and like all other infrastructure, it requires investment to create and effort to maintain.

As centuries of history show, the natural state of an unregulated economy is not free competition, but stifled and constrained competition. Large, established powers, if given the chance, will do everything they can to suppress competition - whether through means fair or foul. From medieval guilds to industrial robber barons, the tactics are always the same: seizing the distribution channels, the infrastructure, the intellectual property, or the sources of raw material. Governments want to control vital resources in the name of national security; industry groups may take a hand in designing regulations that make it all but impossible for new players to enter the field. Outright intimidation, fraud and violence are often used against those who refuse to play along. Even the staunchly libertarian Cato Institute admits this:

It is no surprise, then, that throughout U.S. history corporations have been overwhelmingly hostile to the free market.

To maintain the preferable state of a free market, we need structure and regulation from the government. Taxation provides, among other things, the resources that are necessary to keep the free market running.

In my experience, most libertarians concede that some regulation is needed, but argue that they should only be taxed for services that benefit them directly. This is like demanding that businesses sell their goods to you for exactly what it cost to make them and no more. Just like any business, the government is entitled to "turn a profit" on the services it provides. Just as with a business, these proceeds can be reinvested, resulting in greater productivity and efficiency that ultimately benefit all members of society.

Of course, elected governments can spend tax money unwisely, on pork or boondoggles, and we as citizens have every right to complain about this and to oust officeholders who abuse the public trust. But the solution is not to abolish taxation, just as the solution to corporate fraud and malfeasance is not to ban all corporations. Any power can be abused, but that is not a reason to get rid of all power, which is impossible in any case. If taxes are spent unwisely or wasted, the answer is to elect better politicians or put in place more stringent legislative safeguards.

April 15, 2009, 6:38 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink141 comments
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Atheists, Do Some Good: Join Kiva

An accusation that's often leveled against atheists is that we lack charitable impulses, that faith-based organizations do the hard work of caring for the needy and atheism only promotes selfishness. This is a hateful slur, and to counter it, I've discussed outstanding acts of charity by individual atheists in the past. Evidence like this shows that, as a group, we do not lack compassion. On the contrary, we know that this life is the only one we'll ever have, which gives us the strongest possible motive to improve the welfare of our fellow human beings in the here and now.

Another rejoinder to this accusation is that, if there's any discrepancy between atheist and religious charitable works, it's because many theists donate to explicitly religious organizations, making their contributions highly visible and easy to tally up, whereas atheists generally just give to secular charities and feel less need to advertise their acts of philanthropy as specifically arising from their atheism. But while this is true, it feels unsatisfying. It would be better if there were a way to count just those contributions made by atheists, so we could present definite evidence of how we measure up.

Well, I'm happy to report that such a way has come to my attention. This evidence comes by way of Kiva, a philanthropic organization that helps impoverished communities in developing nations. Kiva does good through "microfinance", a strategy which consists of making small loans, typically $1000 or less, to local entrepreneurs who use the money to launch or expand a business. These business plans can be as simple as buying livestock, so that rural farmers can add meat, milk, eggs or skins to their marketable commodities; or they can go toward the purchase of tools or machines so local people can start a machine shop or a clothing store. (Another microfinance organization you may have heard of is Bangladesh's Grameen Bank, whose founder, Mohammed Yunus, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.) When intelligently targeted, microfinance can help impoverished communities break the cycle of poverty and become self-sufficient.

On Kiva, anyone can sign up to be a lender and give to entrepreneurs listed on the site. If they're asking for more than one person can give, multiple lenders can join together to fully fund a proposal. If the business plan is successful, your seed money is repaid. Kiva has already loaned out over $24 million and claims a default rate of just 2.2%.

What does this have to do with atheism? Only this: Kiva's volunteers can join together into lending teams, keeping track of the total amounts that everyone on a team has given out. And when you view all the teams, the largest - with the most members, the largest number of loans, and the largest total amount of money loaned - is a team named "Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious", with over 3,000 members and over $300,000 loaned so far. This is a potent counterexample to any claim that atheists lack concern for the common good. (This was originally posted by 2[Y] and came to my attention via Lynet, who submitted it to the next Humanist Symposium. I hate to steal the host's thunder, but this was too good to not report on sooner!)

This is a great achievement, but we can do better. I've joined Kiva and become a member of the atheists' lending team. With my first donation, I've supplied the last piece to fully fund a loan request from a grocery store owner in Tajikistan. Kiva makes the process easy: donations can be as small as $25, and there's a reasonable expectation that your money will be repaid. If you're a nonbeliever who cares about the welfare of the world, join me there and let's do some good!

March 15, 2009, 1:26 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink18 comments
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Little-Known Bible Verses XII: Communism

"Atheism and communism always seem to go hand in hand," begins a letter to the editor I recently found through a Google alert. And though the fear of communism has died down since the crumbling of the Soviet Union, the prejudice that this writer was parroting has affected our politics for decades.

In the Cold War, when anti-communist fear and paranoia were rampant, we sought to differentiate ourselves from the enemy in every way possible. It was this fear that spurred the U.S. government to stamp religious slogans on our money and our national oaths, in an attempt to set us apart from "godless communists". The ultimate result was that the things which we thought made us unique became linked together in our minds: right-wing politics, Christianity, and red-blooded American capitalism. The effects of that linkage are still visible today, with bizarre consequences like avowedly Christian organizations who make it a major part of their mission to slash social welfare programs and give tax cuts to the rich. Conversely, even after all this time, outspoken atheists are still smeared with guilt by association, regardless of whether or not we have any association with or sympathy for the fallen communist regimes.

But the merger of Christianity with predatory capitalism was not always the case. In fact, the first Christians believed something very different, as we see from a little-known Bible verse.

In the Book of Acts, chapter 2, verses 44 to 45, we hear a bit about how the first Christians lived following the departure of Jesus:

"And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need."

This is communism in a nutshell - common ownership, no private property, redistribution of resources based only on need. The first Christians were communists.

This verse probably wasn't heard from the pulpits too often during the McCarthy era. Indeed, most of the Bible's clear teachings about social welfare (another one is Deuteronomy 15:7-8, which commands believers to give the poor whatever they need) have been ignored by the Christian right, which embraces social Darwinism in the policy arena even as they denounce Darwin's theory of evolution.

Some Christians did recognize this - C.S. Lewis, for example, says that the ideal Christian society would in many ways be leftist, and there are plenty of liberal churches that emphasize social justice. But even today, hardly any advocate the socialist, communist ideal that is plainly envisioned by the Bible itself.

Other posts in this series:

February 17, 2009, 7:42 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink67 comments
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On Gift-Giving

Earlier this month, I wrote about how Hanukkah's prominence was the plan of reformist rabbis, seeking to create a Jewish holiday to compete with Christmas just as Christmas was created to compete with pagan solstice festivals. In an ironic sense, this campaign has been both a success and a failure: although the cause of Hanukkah was eagerly taken up by marketers, it failed to dislodge Christmas from public consciousness and has simply contributed further to the commercialization of the holiday season.

And that commercialization is spreading and growing beyond all sanity. People have been injured in retail-outlet crushes before, but this year brought the crowning shame of holiday ugliness: a part-time Wal-Mart worker who was trampled to death by a frenzied mob of shoppers. By many accounts, people continued streaming into the store around the paramedics as they worked on the unfortunate man, and became angry and hostile when police closed the store down after the death.

But incidents like that one are just the most visible outbreaks of an attitude that's taken wider root in our society, and that's led to the current economic crisis: an attitude which holds that every person is entitled to every material luxury, regardless of their income, and that it's perfectly all right to get deeper and deeper into debt to obtain them. To an extent, this attitude flows from the top - from a president who told Americans that the most important thing we could do after 9/11 was to go shopping, and a Congress that financed a ruinous foreign war on borrowed money. But it's also partly intrinsic to capitalism, which by nature rewards greed and rapaciousness. When those tendencies grow out of control rather than being held in check, the result is the market collapse and financial meltdown we're now living through.

All of these attitudes come from the same source, the view that happiness and satisfaction in life is secured through the accumulation of wealth and possessions. This belief is false, and I laid out an alternative in "Down to Earth": an ethic of rich simplicity that takes joy in the ordinary pleasures of life, rather than grasping after luxuries.

What does this ethic have to say about gift-giving? I don't think that it's necessarily a bad thing. There's nothing wrong in giving a person something that they need or can make use of (as I've said earlier, you can never have too many books). I think it's better that it be small, however. Large and ostentatious gifts, feel too much like trying to buy the recipient's affection, or else put them in the position of owing a debt they can't pay back. But small gifts, especially if they're handmade, are a genuine way of conveying, rather than attempting to purchase, good feelings toward those for whom we feel friendship and affection. (If you're not a craftsperson, I also favor consumable gifts - soap, candles, wine or chocolate, for instance.)

But best of all is the idea of agreeing, with friends and family, to make donations to charity in each other's name instead of exchanging gifts. After all, for most of us First World citizens, we don't need these gifts: we are comfortable, well-fed and well-clothed and well-housed; we enjoy living standards that are inconceivable to most of humanity. There are places in the world that need assistance far more than most of us ever will, people for whom even a small gift - say, a mosquito net or a vaccination - could represent a genuine improvement in their life and not just a token of affection. If the real purpose of gift-giving is to create happiness for the recipient, acknowledging and addressing the world's need would be a far worthier and more powerful way of doing so.

December 22, 2008, 9:32 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink41 comments
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A Solstice Sermon

In past years, I've used the occasion of the winter solstice to deliver a brief homily on an issue of moral importance. This year, I'd like to do so again.

Although nearly every society has put its own religious or cultural gloss on it, the solstice is an event marked and commemorated by all of humanity. In Japan, the solstice festival is Amaterasu, the reemergence of the sun goddess. To ancient Romans, it was Brumalia, the feast of the wine god Bacchus, and to Germanic pagans, it was Yule. To modern Christians, of course, it became Christmas. In every case, though, and accounting for calendrical drift, what this day really celebrates is the knowledge that winter has reached its darkest ebb and that warmth and sunlight will be returning (granted, I'm betraying my northern-hemisphere bias). In many cultures, this rebirth marked the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.

The date of the solstice was no small thing to the agrarian societies of the past, where understanding the cycle of the seasons and knowing when to plant crops was a matter of life or death. Today, a fossil-fuel-powered global economy can grow food wherever it's warm and ship it wherever it's needed, buffering us First Worlders from the vicissitudes of climate. Nevertheless, there are millions of people even today for whom getting enough food is a very real and pressing dilemma.

The numbers are heart-wrenching: this year, the USDA estimates that 36 million Americans will experience "food insecurity", a euphemism for not having enough to eat. This means that an astonishing one in ten Americans, sometime in this past year, have gone to bed hungry, or skipped meals to make ends meet, or haven't known where their next meal would come from. One in ten - and this not in some destitute, drought-ridden Third World society, but in the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world.

Could it be your friends, your neighbors, your coworkers among that hungry throng? Statistically, it's very likely. Hunger is a silent problem, because so many people are ashamed to admit that they get food stamps or rely on a food pantry. In our Puritan, capitalist society, being poor still carries a great stigma, as if being hungry is a sign of laziness or lack of motivation. In reality, many of the hungry are people who have a job, or two jobs, or even three; but in an America that's increasingly stratified, where wealth and opportunity are becoming more and more concentrated at the top, and where the social safety net is becoming worn and threadbare, even having a job is no guarantee of earning enough to support a family. And the kinds of food that are cheapest tend to be highly processed, high-calorie, low-nutrition - the kind that nourishes only at the cost of causing other kinds of long-term damage. It's no coincidence that obesity and diabetes are most common among the poor, as well as hunger.

It's not as if America is unable to feed all her sons and daughters. We could do it if we wanted to. Where do the money and resources go? An honest accounting must certainly begin with the half-trillion-dollar defense budget, which very nearly equals the military spending of every other nation in the world combined. Most of this is being spent on weapons programs to prepare for wars we will never have to fight; urban combat and counterinsurgency, not massive conventional conflicts between great powers, is almost certainly the face of war in the future.

It was Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican president and former supreme commander of allied forces in World War II Europe, who famously said that every gun made and every warship launched signifies a theft from those who hunger and are not fed. In our time, that speech more starkly than ever outlines the choices that are available to us. We can continue to spend our future on looking back at the past, making ourselves ever more able to deal death to those we name enemies. Or we could use that money to put an end to hunger and poverty not just in the United States, but around the world as well. We could use our wealth and superpower status to mend the world and sow the seeds of a lasting peace and goodwill, one that would do far more to protect us from terrorism than any number of high-tech weapons systems ever have or will.

For the foreseeable future, though, this outcome is inconceivable. Our politicians and leaders, even the greatest, are enmeshed in the mire of conventional wisdom which holds that spending more on defense is always courageous and patriotic, while spending to feed the hungry is a sign of weakness and foolishness. For the immediate future, the burden to act rests not on the government, but with us, the grass roots. Where the social safety net has failed, we must fill the gaps. (In the medium-range future, I hope that all Daylight Atheism readers are willing to push their own governments to invest more wisely.) There are worthy charities like Oxfam or Feeding America, as well as local food banks, that are taking part in this effort. We, the well-off and comfortable citizens of the First World, have a moral obligation to lend a hand to those to whom our assistance might mean so much. What are you willing to do to help?

December 21, 2008, 4:00 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink22 comments
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Rapture Bonds

One of the great virtues of market forces is that they consistently reward investors who can correctly predict future events. Whenever two people disagree about the plausibility of some event, you can create a financial instrument whereby the one who's right can profit at the expense of the one who's wrong.

The Christian community in America, particularly that section of it aligned with the religious right, commands vast wealth and influence. Although atheists are beginning to make our mark, we're still routinely outspent and outlobbied by the legions of Christian conservatives and their wealthy leaders. It would be greatly beneficial if we could use the power of the market to redirect some of that wealth away from them and to us, where we can put it to better use advancing the cause of science and reason, rather than promoting regressive superstition. But what deal can we offer that they will accept?

I think the religious doctrine of the Rapture is the lever we need. Vast numbers of believers are completely convinced that this event will happen in the near future, and unlike natural catastrophes which might happen by coincidence, it is an unambiguously supernatural aspect of their end-times belief. If, as they say, they have no doubt that it will occur, we can give them a chance to put their money where their mouth is - and to take money away from us if we're the ones who are wrong. What believer could resist that opportunity?

At first glance it might seem impossible to design a financial instrument that centers around the Rapture. After all, if the Christians are right, they won't be around to collect. But I have a solution: I call it Rapture Bonds.

Here's my offer to the believer. Choose a time period - a year, five years, ten years - however long you think is needed to be sure that the Rapture will happen sometime in the chosen interval. Choose a dollar amount. I, the investor, will loan you that amount of money. During the agreed-upon time period, you can use that money in any way you see fit to advance the cause of Christian evangelism: print gospel tracts, pay missionaries' salaries, donate it to televangelists, or whatever else you like.

However, at the end of the chosen period, you must pay me back the entire principal, plus all the interest it's been accumulating during that time. This would be similar to the balloon mortgages that some homeowners take out, which also have a lump-sum payment at the end.

What happens if the Rapture comes during your time interval? Then, obviously, you can't be held liable for the debt. In fact, the bond agreement will have a clause which states that the debt is unrecoverable if the debtor is declared legally dead without there being a body. If you die in the normal fashion, however, your estate is liable for the bond repayment.

In my opinion, this is a great way for Christians - and atheists as well - to really put their respective beliefs to the test. If the Christians are right, then we atheists have given you free money you can use to promote God's kingdom at our expense. If we atheists are right, then the money flows in the opposite direction. The best part is that you can enter into it no matter what you believe. I designed this instrument because I believe it will channel money from Christians to atheists, but a Christian investor could enter into it in the equally confident belief that the opposite will happen. The facts of the world will end up determining who's right, and the money will follow.

I personally don't have the funds to offer this plan on any significant scale. But it might be something for a canny, freethinking investor to consider.

December 17, 2008, 9:43 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink40 comments
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Down to Earth

I had rather be shut up in a very modest cottage with my books, my family and a few old friends, dining on simple bacon, and letting the world roll on as it liked, than to occupy the most splendid post, which any human power can give.

—Thomas Jefferson, letter to Alexander Donald, 7 February 1788

What should we seek to get out of life? To a secular humanist, what is the goal toward which our labors should point?

As atheists, we don't believe in a heavenly reward, so that path is foreclosed to us. There are no gods we can please through our piety. Likewise, asceticism seems a pointless, even self-contradictory pursuit: since there is no life other than this one, and no good karma to be accumulated through self-denial, there is no sense in forsaking happiness now in hope of later reward.

What, then, is left? The riches of the world are the obvious answer, and an ever-present temptation. If this life is all we have, hadn't we better get while the getting's good? Should atheists be hedonists, chasing after wealth and fame whatever the cost? Should we seek worldly power, the flattery and approval of our fellow human beings? Is it true, in the final accounting, that he who dies with the most toys wins?

Well, no. A simple example suffices to show why this is false. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that my net worth is a million dollars. (It's not.) Now consider a man who's been far more successful than me, with a net worth of a billion - a thousand million - dollars. If money or possessions buy happiness, then that billionaire must be a thousand times happier than I am. But this, as I hope we all agree, is absurd.

From what we know of human psychology, it's extremely unlikely that people have such a wide range of emotional variation. Of course you can be happier or sadder than another person, but not to such a grossly incommensurate degree. Rather, comparing millionaires to billionaires provides a clear example of the theory of declining marginal utility. When you have no money, a little money can make you very happy indeed. But as basic needs are satisfied, the amount of happiness bought by each additional dollar declines steadily, until you reach a point where no amount of additional wealth would make you any happier. (Incidentally, this is part of the reason I'm not a libertarian - since money is not closely tied to happiness, I don't consider it at all outrageous for the state to implement a program of reasonable redistribution.)

And even this analysis leaves out something crucial: acquiring such extreme wealth is a pursuit that by definition only a very few can succeed at. Most people who set out to become billionaires will fail, and have nothing to show for all the labor and effort invested in the quest. Even for those who succeed, life won't become a bed of roses: if anything, wealthy and powerful people have a whole new range of challenges and problems in their life which ordinary people never have to confront. Material possessions don't bring happiness; we get that from the love and friendship of our fellow human beings, and ironically, due to the isolating effect of wealth and power, the rich and famous have less opportunity for that than the rest of us. It's far more difficult to relate to someone when there are such vast disparities in status between the two.

If happiness in life comes neither from piety, nor asceticism, nor wealth and indulgence, what's left? The answer, as Thomas Jefferson knew, is a life of rich simplicity - what Buddhism calls the middle way. Rather than always chasing after more, we should learn to be content with what we have.

Trying to gain happiness by acquiring possessions is as futile as trying to get somewhere by running on a treadmill. When happiness consists only of getting more and more, then the quest is its own undoing. As soon as you successfully acquire something, it will no longer bring you any satisfaction, but will only remind you of what you still don't have - and so on, ad infinitum. This endless striving brings no contentment, only misery.

Instead, I believe that goodness in life consists in gaining experience, having love and friendship, the acquisition of knowledge, the pleasure of creating things through artistry or craft, the practice of virtue toward others, and participation in meaningful and satisfying work. Accumulating possessions plays no part in this (although, I admit, I may have to make an exception for books: I don't think you can ever have too many books.) There's nothing wrong with owning a big house in the country, but I would rather live in a small and cozy home filled with warmth, light, laughter and the fellowship of good friends than live in the largest and grandest mansion on earth and be alone.

Some people seek to acquire wealth and fame so they can stride the earth like a colossus, but humanist philosophy leads me to conclude that they are misguided. They are staking their lives on an all-or-nothing gamble, and when you only have one life to wager, that sounds to me like a foolish bet. I'd much rather live down to earth, seeking the simpler pleasures that are available to everyone. They're far easier to come by, and yet, ironically, they are by far the ones more worthy of acquiring.

November 19, 2008, 7:52 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink33 comments
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Spread the Wealth: Further Thoughts on Capitalism

In his 1651 book Leviathan, the Enlightenment political theorist Thomas Hobbes wrote that in the uncivilized, lawless state of nature, the life of humankind was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". Even in Hobbes' own day, when a relative degree of civilization had been achieved, there was considerable truth to this. But in just the last few hundred years, our society has been transformed almost beyond recognition.

For most of human history, nearly everyone lived in conditions of poverty, squalor and deprivation. But, ever since the Industrial Revolution, we have had a tool to overcome that! That tool is capitalism, which, when combined with science and technology, has proven itself to be a powerful engine of economic growth. The greatest virtue of capitalism is that it creates wealth, rather than just shuffling it around. Capitalism rewards the development of more efficient ways of making and doing things, from agricultural techniques that produce larger and more reliable yields of food, to industrial manufacturing methods that create far greater quantities of goods than could ever be made by hand. Although this does cause hardship for people whose ways of making a living become obsolete, in the long run it benefits everyone, because the human resources that are freed up can find new employment in other, more productive areas and increase the net wealth of society further still.

And when we can create wealth, we are freed from the Darwinian struggle for physical survival. We need not spend every moment in cutthroat competition for necessary resources. We are no longer limited by what untamed nature provides us. By using our ingenuity and our will to shape our environment, we can all be lifted up by economic growth that benefits every member of a society, creating more abundance than past eras had dreamed of. As opposed to traditional pastoral or hunter-gatherer societies, where the net wealth and range of opportunities open to a person was small, industrial society offers an enormously greater field of opportunity and abundance.

Although the process of economic competition causes hardship, it is necessary, because meritocracy is an essential part of capitalism. It's the way in which the good ideas which produce more wealth flourish and spread, while bad, inefficient or outdated ideas are selected against and disappear. But the important point is that competition and meritocracy are a means to an end. They are not the end in themselves.

Some people, especially libertarians, seem not to grasp this. They act as if competition itself was the end, as if inequality was the end - and this is absurd. The purpose of the economy is, or at least should be, to produce happiness, not to produce winners and losers. Competition is merely the means; the end is producing greater wealth and greater opportunity, and with them, greater well-being for all members of society.

This is why progressive, redistributive taxation is a vital part of any civilized state's economic policy. Those libertarian philosophies which would allow individuals to accumulate unlimited wealth without interference have lost sight of why an economy and a state exist in the first place. By allowing some people to acquire unlimited wealth, they have implicitly decided that their goal is happiness not for everyone, but only for a privileged few. By any reasonable standard of morality, this is wrong. By aiming at a suboptimal standard, they would construct a state that enjoys less prosperity and less happiness in general, and such nations will inevitably be outcompeted by those that ensure a fair distribution of basic resources.

We should not help people with no reasonable expectation of repayment. If there are people who want to be free-riders, who want to take advantage of others' effort and not contribute in return, then by all means, cut them off. This conclusion flows from the same principle that implies taxation of the wealthy: namely, the principle that all people should do their part in contributing to society. The point of a meritocracy is that people should be rewarded commensurate with their effort. But they should also, as a precondition of participating in society, contribute to that society commensurate with their ability to do so. By spreading the wealth around, we create a better, more prosperous community - one that any rational person should prefer to join - than could ever be achieved by other methods.

August 31, 2008, 10:50 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink75 comments
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Why I Am Not a Communist

Last summer, I wrote a three-part post series, "Why I Am Not a Libertarian", which explained my disagreement with this political philosophy. However, I've realized that despite writing an essay addressing the crimes of communist regimes as they reflect on atheists, I've never written a post on my differences with communism per se. This one will do that.

I have many objections to communism, not least of which is last year's news that, in Russia, the Communist party is now teaming up with the Russian Orthodox Church to outlaw homosexuality - a fitting illustration of the similar dogmatic, irrational attitudes that prevail in both ideologies. But my differences go deeper than that, and this post will outline three of the most serious.

Communism lacks a good mechanism to allocate resources to where they are most needed, resulting in waste, shortages and inefficiency. In a capitalist economy, price serves as both a vital signal of demand and also the means of meeting that demand. When a product or service is demanded in excess of current supply, the price rises, attracting people to produce that product or service in order to make a greater profit. Conversely, when supply outstrips demand, the price drops and people are naturally discouraged from producing more of the excess commodity until the imbalance resolves itself. This "invisible hand" of the market, an organizational force at the macro-level emerging from thousands of independent decisions, is often an extremely efficient way of balancing supply with demand and resulting in a society where there is neither wasteful excess nor shortage.

Communism, however, has no such balancing mechanism. In a communist society, the state sets the price of all commodities, and this decision can be completely arbitrary. In theory, if a shortage occurs, the state simply orders the appropriate entities to produce more, but this decision is insufficiently sensitive to price signals and has no necessary link to supply or demand. No group of centralized bureaucrats has the information or the intelligence to make such perfect decisions affecting the price of every transaction in society. This "top-down" approach will inevitably result in inefficiency and misallocation of resources, wasting commodities that are produced in excess of demand and causing shortages of commodities that are not produced in sufficient quantity to meet demand. The "bottom-up" approach of capitalism is a far superior means of dealing with this problem.

Communism discourages productive effort and innovation. In a communist society, no one is richer than anyone else; the state allocates goods to all people based only on need. This means that there are no material rewards for invention, innovation, or greater productivity. It also means that those who are less productive than the average have no incentive to work harder or increase their output.

What this inevitably leads to, in the real world, is a vicious spiral of decreased effort and decreased production, as people slacken their efforts so as to work no harder than the least hardworking member of society (whom they'll be paid the same as anyway, so why work any harder than them?). This is the classic Prisoner's Dilemma in action, and means that such a system cannot compete against a capitalist economy that tangibly rewards good ideas and hard work.

Communism necessarily denies the freedom of the individual. Of all the shortcomings of communism, I consider this one to be the most serious. A communist economy necessarily denies people the freedom to seek happiness in whatever career they choose. In such a system, decisions regarding what job a person will take must be made by the state. When the bureaucracy perceives a shortage, their only response is to order more people to join the effort of producing the desired commodity. Thus, a communist society is intrinsically a tyranny where people's lives must be controlled in minute and exacting detail by a faceless and distant central committee. This alone should make communism repugnant to all lovers of freedom and liberty, and bring us to the realization that no such system could ever succeed in reality without massive and widespread violations of the human right to choose our own destiny and pursue happiness as we see fit.

May 9, 2008, 7:53 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink88 comments
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Three Objections to Objectivism

I recently finished reading Ayn Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness, and I wanted to offer some comments on her moral philosophy.

There are several good reasons why I ought to like Ayn Rand. She was an atheist, and proudly so, and argued for the supremacy of reason as the only valid way of knowing. I agree with this. She denounced communism and supported capitalism. I agree with this as well. Her works are still very popular in some circles and offer a vision of a rational, productive life which many people find powerful and inspiring.

Nevertheless, there are also reasons why I don't like Rand - neither her as a person, nor her philosophy - and these reasons, in my judgment, far outweigh whatever factors are in her favor. These include her blatant hypocrisy in her adulterous relationship with Nathaniel Branden, the cult-like attitude of absolute obedience and conformity that characterized her movement's founding, and her genocidal belief that the European settlers of the Americas were fully within their rights to slaughter, despoil and enslave the native people of those continents, all because the Native Americans did not share the European concept of property rights. (Yes, she actually said that.)

This post will detail three of my primary objections to Rand's Objectivist philosophy, as it's expressed in TVOS and her other works. Combined, I believe they demonstrate that Rand's system of thought either contains fatal self-contradictions, or else would be destructive to the welfare of any society that was to adopt it.

The Objectivist Firefighter: Sacrificing Your Life For Strangers

Central to Objectivism is the notion that the individual's life is the supreme moral value. "The Objectivist ethics holds man's life as the standard of value — and his own life as the ethical purpose of every individual man" (p.25). An Objectivist may rationally sacrifice his life, if the cause were so important to him that he would not want to live if it were to fail. Central to Objectivism, however, is the notion that no one can ever have a duty to sacrifice his own life for the sake of others. "[Objectivism] means one's rejection of the role of a sacrificial animal, the rejection of any doctrine that preaches self-immolation as a moral virtue or duty" (p.27). Even when others are in danger, we have no obligation to assist them. "If the person to be saved is a stranger, it is morally proper to save him only when the danger to one's own life is minimal; when the danger is great, it would be immoral to attempt it..." (p.45).

Let's see how this principle would play out in a real-world situation. Cast your mind back to the morning of September 11, 2001, and ponder the situation from the point of view of a rescue worker, like a paramedic or a firefighter. The hijacked planes have crashed into the Twin Towers, which are in flames and badly damaged; it's plain to see they may collapse soon. Yet there are still thousands of people inside who could be saved. Let's say you're one of the first responders, as well as an Objectivist, and your superior orders you into the towers to rescue as many people as you can. How should you respond?

Here's how one real firefighter actually did respond:

I will always remember one panting reporter talking to a fireman who was shrugging into his respirator. "What are you doing?" "I'm going to that other tower," he said. "I think that other tower is going to collapse," said the reporter, seeming to forget that he was on the air. "You would do the same for me," the fireman said, and ran up the street.

And yet, from the principles just stated, it seems the Objectivist course of action is clear. Unlike the firefighter quoted above, the Objectivist rescue worker has to refuse - because he's being asked to risk his life for strangers, which can never be a moral duty according to Rand. In fact, since the preservation of one's individual life is the highest virtue, the consistent Objectivist not only ought to refuse to enter the towers, he ought to get himself out of the area and to safety as soon as possible, and never mind what happens to anyone else. As long as no one you personally know is in danger, your duty is to protect yourself and only yourself. This is what Ayn Rand calls morality; I think most people would more accurately describe it as contemptible cowardice.

Perhaps the objection could be raised that, having committed himself to the job already, the Objectivist is bound to follow through. But that just moves the problem back, because then the conclusion would seem to be that an Objectivist should always turn down any job - firefighter, policeman, infectious-disease specialist - that might potentially put his life in danger. These all entail putting yourself at risk for the sake of strangers, a thought intolerable to any consistent Objectivist. Yet, just as clearly, society needs people to do these jobs if it is to survive.

Ayn Pangloss: Conflicts of Interest Among Rational Men

Central to the Objectivist morality is the idea that "there are no conflicts of interests among rational men" (p.50). This is crucial to Rand's position because she argues that all people should make all their decisions on the basis of reason. If reason led people to want mutually exclusive things, then either some people would have to surrender the goals dictated by reason and seek something else (a thought Rand finds intolerable), or else no one would surrender their goals and the result would be an attempt to achieve a contradiction, which "can lead only to disaster and destruction" (p.51).

It's hard to see at first how this principle could apply in a capitalist economy. What if two people apply for the same job? Isn't there a genuine conflict of interest between them as to who will be hired?

Rand's answer to this question is that, just because two people want the same thing, it does not follow that they both rationally want it. "The mere fact that a man desires something does not constitute a proof... that its achievement is actually to his interest" (p.50). Rand argues that reason leads to the conclusion that capitalism is the best economic system possible, because it maximizes human productiveness and freedom, both of which are to everyone's interest. Thus a rational person accepts that, in the context of his entire life, competition on the basis of merit is a good thing, even if it may cause him to lose out occasionally. "He knows that the struggle to achieve his values includes the possibility of defeat" (p.53). An Objectivist also believes he is only entitled to what he has earned by his own effort, and in a rational, merit-based system, if he loses out to a superior applicant, that is the only outcome he had any right to expect. He has no rational interest in the job unless he earns and deserves it by his own effort. "Whoever gets the job, has earned it... The failure to give a man what has never belonged to him can hardly be described as 'sacrificing his interests'" (p.56).

So far, so good. But now, consider a case Rand never discusses: What if two equally qualified people apply for the same job? This certainly seems to be possible. Let's assume that there are two applicants who are equally intelligent, equally skilled, and would perform equally well if given the job. In that case, is it not in both their interests to get that job, and since only one of them can have it, is this not a contradiction? Rand fiercely disparages "whim", and yet in this situation it seems there could be no other way to resolve the deadlock.

But we need not even go this far. There's something else that Rand has overlooked: her doctrine requires that the market be not just free, but infallible. For if the market ever selects wrongly - that is, if it ever chooses the less qualified applicant for a given job - then I, as the more qualified but unsuccessful applicant, am faced with an irreconcilable contradiction: I want to live in a free-market society, which is in my rational interest, but I also wanted that job, the obtaining of which was also in my rational interest.

In that case, the act of obeying reason leads to a contradiction. Rand would hold that this is, by definition, impossible. That being so, she and her followers are committed to believing that the market always knows best, that its choices are always the correct ones. Otherwise, they're faced with the fatal self-contradiction of rationally wanting to live in a capitalist society, yet also rationally wanting something that it has denied them. Obviously, on this point the Objectivist philosophy clashes with reality: there undoubtedly are many situations where capitalist economies make erroneous decisions. A less rigid philosophy would recognize that, although a free society is in everyone's interest in the long term, that does not mean it will not make mistakes or block our interests on occasion; it's just that the alternatives are even worse.

"You Will Not Be Stopped": The Heartless Core of Objectivism

Since Objectivists reject all notions of a social safety net, it's natural to ask what would happen to the poor and needy in an Objectivist society. This is Ayn Rand's answer: "If you want to help them, you will not be stopped" (p.80).

This chilling response, which carries with it the unmistakable implication that she will not be participating in any such effort, illustrates Objectivist philosophy's cruel, heartless ethic of social Darwinism. Its guiding principle is not "we're all in this together", but rather "every man for himself" - and whatever misery strikes the worthless and the inferior as a result ought not to trouble the brave, heroic, superior souls whom Rand imagines are mankind's salvation. The parallels between this doctrine and the beliefs of tyrants throughout history should be too obvious to need pointing out.

Am I too harsh? Rand's defenders might point to passages like the following one, which condemns the Soviet Union, as proof that she does care about the suffering of others and wants to see it alleviated:

"Two generations of Russians have lived, toiled and died in misery, waiting for the abundance promised by their rulers, who pleaded for patience and commanded austerity, while building public 'industrialization' and killing public hope in five-year installments. At first, the people starved while waiting for electric generators and tractors; they are still starving, while waiting for atomic energy and interplanetary travel" (p.84).

This sounds very compassionate of her - until you remember that Ayn Rand believes that the free market is, by definition, infallible (see last point). In Objectivist philosophy, if you succeed it's because you deserve to succeed, and if you're poor it's because you deserve to be poor. Combined with Rand's repeated expressions of fierce disdain for "parasites" and "looters" and "moochers", it seems hard to escape the conclusion that a consistent Objectivist would never give any money or other assistance to others. After all, if they were deserving of your help, they wouldn't need it; they'd have already achieved success and security on their own through hard work and persistence. To an Objectivist, the way you prove you're worthy of help is by proving you don't need help. And the reason Rand was so upset about the starving citizens of the USSR wasn't because they were starving; it was because they were starving under the wrong ideology. In an Objectivist society, people might still starve, but we can at least comfort ourselves with the knowledge that they must have deserved it.

March 21, 2008, 8:35 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink177 comments
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