Commenting on the last post, Jim Sullivan expresses his frustration with being coerced to pay taxes and have his property taken from him — a form of theft, he claims. When I respond that it is a kind of fee for the numerous services that create stability and prosperity, he can correctly point to the lack of an opt out. Even if he is much better off because of government, he never had a choice in the matter.
Others on all parts of the political spectrum will point to numerous other social ills: poverty, starvation, genocide, wars throughout the third world, first world imperialism (funded through taxes), and all sorts of conditions and actions that are intolerable. When there is an industry worth over $60 billion a year turning young girls into sex slaves and destroying their lives (sometimes they are sold in to it by their parents), torture, and human rights violations across the globe, one has to wonder what is going on in this world. Compared to much of the evil on the planet, I find taxation not to be so bad. I live in material comfort and security — most of us in the US are in the top 1 or 2% of the planet in material well being. Clearly, it’s not so bad.
Or is it? Are we in a gilded cage, living lives guided by trend and advertising fashion — the ‘culture industry’ — in a way that dulls our desire for achievement and meaning? Do we medicate ourselves (whether in alcohol, legal or illegal drugs) and indulge in various distractions simply because the world around us seems to have a lot of toys, but little of substance? And what about Jim’s objection to the lack of choice — he’s born in a world where taxation is mandatory, and none of us can do much about it, like it or not.
Ever since we left our hunter-gatherer roots and started to form communities, the problem of individual interests vs. collective interests has been there. Traditional societies used tradition, norms, and religious rule to coerce people to adhere to the rules of the community. These were pervasive and often people were simply indoctrinated to follow them. But it worked — for the most part people freely chose to do things that benefited the community, often at their own expense, ranging from providing labor to sacrificing ones’ life to the gods.
Moreover, in smaller communities people see directly the negative effects of looking out for only oneself and not others in the community. So people often choose to pull together to provide for the common good our of a clear self-interest as well. That creates a sense of security and meaning — we’re there for each other, we are stronger as a community than as individuals. When the polity grows in size, and when factory life alienates workers from the products of their labor, there is a de-personalization of the community. It is too big and diffuse to really identify with. You don’t know who made the chair you’re sitting on, who grew the apple you’ve just eaten, or even who drove the plow that just cleared the road outside your house.
This de-personalization makes it harder to find incentives to contribute or participate. If you bought apples from the orchard down the road, and the family had a severe problem, you’d be tempted to help out — you know these folk, they provide you food! But if a big corporation employs large numbers of apple pickers at low wages, there is no connection. Thus the collective action problem grows — the community needs support from citizens to survive and thrive, but the old ways of providing it (voluntary, through church, or communities pulling together) becomes sparse, as people no longer have those connections. The result is a series of needs for the community to maintain itself, while people have no incentive to respond to those needs, they don’t see the connection. The leaders of the community (now a large sovereign state) turn to force and taxation as a necessary evil to prevent collapse.
Yet this de-personalization also means that it becomes very easy for both politicians and citizens to separate out their actions from the consquences of those actions. Cut taxes while raising spending? Sure, that will get votes, and we can find ways to manipulate monetary and fiscal policies to put off having to actually deal with the imbalances this leaves behind. This also makes war easier to support — it’s abstract, you can construct a caricatured enemy, and it’s a media show. Only when the reality becomes hard to avoid due to consequences that can be felt and seen (as happened with the Iraq war by 2006) does the public start asking hard questions. Hyper-consumption is embraced without concern for the environment.
In short, de-personalization creates abstraction, and abstraction allows people to replace real human concerns with concepts that can be rationalized through arguments which appear reasonable and common-sensical. Within this framework, politics can be easily manipulated by the powerful (big business and big government), and average folk get increasingly alienated from the “big” decisions. Politics becomes spectacle and entertainment at best, delusion and subterfuge at worst.
So within this framework there are a host of injustices that vary in seriousness, yet each have validity. It isn’t right to sell women into sex slavery, genocide is wrong, war for oil or ethnic conquest is wrong, taking other peoples’ property is wrong, having some live in abject poverty while others live in opulence is wrong, and destroying our environment is just plain stupid, since it will limit the ability of future generations to have a quality life.
We can focus on which of these “evils” to combat, and that will cause political division. To combat poverty and human rights violations, government power and taxation is often a means to that end. To combat the ability of powerful actors (government, supported by big money) to take one’s property would require an inability to act on many other problems. Those of us who accept government power and taxation do so as the ‘lesser of two evils,’ not allowing this means no action to protect others and work against serious problems.
At this time and place in history, that’s where we’re at. Sovereign states are the form of government which exists, and while someday they will be replaced by something else, that won’t be anytime soon. Poverty will exist, warfare will continue to exist, people will be sold into slavery and often forced prostitution, lives will be destroyed, and children violated and exploited. People will be taxed, and will not be free to choose how they want to organize their lives. Pragmatically, the best we can hope for is to keep those with power accountable to both the public and rule of law. Unfortunately, that’s an imperfect solution and more often than not governments become corrupt and in the hands of elites. It’s a nexus of big money and big government, with the irony that the right often ignores the misdeeds of big money, while the left excuses the misdeeds of big government. Yet the two are in this together, complicit in driving the world we have.
Perhaps there is no “right” political answer to this dilemma, just a constant balancing of pragmatic concerns, with a goal of over time moving closer to an ideal of real liberty for all — liberty from government intrusion, as well as from poverty caused by class difference, exploitation, and the abuse of power by either government or big money. We have a long way to go. Sometimes I think we live in the pre-history of humankind, a dark, violent and dangerous era. Sometime in the future humans will look back at our era and be thankful they did not endure this time and this place.
Yet, despite that all, I love life and enjoy every day, and see beauty all around me. I do not let myself get burdened psychologically by the political and social ills of this world — I cannot change the whole, I can only live my life in a way that can try to spread a little love and kindness. Somehow, the big issues will take care of themselves over time. We can vote, participate, and contribute — but most importantly, if we live right, we can have a good life in this time and place, and perhaps make small steps towards a better future.