February 10, 2012 columns

“Why does the stupid government get to take some of my money?”

Married to the Sea is a great web comic. But every now and then the creator puts up one that offers, let us say, a “teaching moment.” Today’s is a good example, one that makes a joke out of rich people complaining about paying taxes by way of all-too-common of shibboleths. Of course, humor simplifies, so treating a single panel cartoon like it’s a 30 page article in Philosophy and Public Affairs isn’t necessarily fair. But the attitude the comic represents demands a response because we encounter it frequently.

With that preamble done, here’s the comic:

1) “Some.” Very few people argue the government shouldn’t get to take some of our money. A government that took no money either wouldn’t exist or would have to rely on voluntary contributions (and so wouldn’t fit any common definition of a state). The issue in the real world, of course, isn’t about “some” vs. “none,” but how much? As I’ve written before when addressing Elizabeth Warren’s thoughts on taxes and fairness, considering much of what the modern state does, it’s difficult to figure out why any of us are morally obligated to contribute more to it. If the state limited itself to defense and protecting our rights (and, depending on whom you ask, offering a basic social safety net), then it would be odd for anyone but an anarchist to refuse to pay taxes. But the state doesn’t limit itself to that—and there seems nothing unreasonable in saying, “I don’t want to pay more taxes if that money’s going to go to unnecessary wars and subsidies for rich sugar growers.”

2) “Maintain society for 200 years.” If we stick to talking only about the United States, in the last 200 years our government enabled and enforced slavery; slaughtered countless of its own citizens, either on its own soil or by sending them to die overseas; forced racial segregation upon blacks; created the TSA; put us all trillions of dollars in debt; and, with the help of Wall Street, tanked the U.S. economy. That counts as “maintenance?”

Further, the fact “society” existed long before this government and was functioning before this government got so big (and thus so expensive) means we can safely assume, if government didn’t get more of our money, society would persevere. Of course, some things government does are good and some of the changes it realized in the last 200 years have improved our lives, but that doesn’t give it the right to expect us to pay more today for a great many things that aren’t good.

The broader trouble with ideas of the Elizabeth Warrens, the Married to the Seas, and all other who mirror their views—of the idea government has done good and has helped, in some way, to make us wealthier, so why gripe about paying our fair share?—is that they’re ways to avoid the actual debate.

After all, the issue is not whether to pay taxes, it’s what should we pay taxes for? I feel rather certain that if Santorum gets elected and he decides to raise taxes to fund massive abstinence-only education programs, you won’t see a new comic poking fun at progressives who don’t want to pay for that.

The trouble with politics is that too many of us assume that we’re right, beyond a shadow of a doubt, and that, crucially, we’re right in a way that’s obvious. Thus anyone who disagrees—who would rather see other policies enacted or who doesn’t think current policies work as well as we do—is not just mistaken. Indeed, he’s either stupid (he fails to see what’s painfully obvious) or evil (he does see it, but is so immoral he wants bad things to happen). This means rather than taking opposing views seriously (maybe “paying your fair share” is more complicated than we immediately realize), we can instead safely ignore them—because what’s the point of genuinely engaging the ideas of stupid or evil people?

This is sad, not just because it inhibits fruitful deliberation, but also because it means despising our fellow citizens for no good reason.