As a classical liberal, I believe that government can sometimes act in ways that help people to lead lives that are happier, healthier, and more secure. The problem, though, is that the circumstances under which it is able to do so are very narrowly limited, difficult to foresee, and prone to exaggeration by politically interested factions. So while government is, in principle, able to do some good, there are very often (almost always?) superior non-governmental alternatives for better achieving the same end.

I think all of us know this on some level. Even people like Warren Buffett who publicly beg for the government to tax them more. After all, if Buffett really believes that he ought to be paying more taxes, then what’s stopping him?

The Federal Government of the United States accepts donations. Seriously. They go right into the general fund, just like your taxes. Here’s the address to send them to. If you’re so inclined, you can apparently even earmark your donation for the specific purpose of reducing the federal debt.

Of course, not a lot of people do this. About $3.2 million was given to reduce the debt in 2011, and you can find the (generally much lower) figures for others years here. And while $3.2 million might sound like a lot, bear in mind that it’s about two-tenths of one percent of what Americans spend on ice cream in a given year.

Why so little? One possible explanation is that people are selfish – they’d rather spend the money on themselves, and they aren’t going to give it away to help others unless they’re forced to, as they are in the case of taxes. But this explanation is difficult to square with the large amounts of money that Americans give to charity each year – over $300 billion in 2009, the vast majority of which came from private individuals and bequests, not big corporations looking for a tax break.

So if selfishness isn’t the explanation, what is? I suggest the following: most people know that there are better and more efficient ways of using their money to help other people than giving it to government. Even Warren Buffett knows this. Otherwise why didn’t he make that $37 billion dollar check out to the US Treasury?

We’re careful about how we spend our own money. Not just when we spend it on ourselves, but when we spend it on others too. Whether it’s consumption or charity, we want to get the most for our money. We’re understandably less cautious when it comes to spending other people’s money, but just because something is understandable doesn’t make it right. If we wouldn’t (and don’t) give our own money voluntarily to government, doesn’t this tell us something about whether we should try to force other people to give more of theirs under threat of legal penalty?

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  • AlisonCummins

    Don’t be silly. It’s game theory. If we all chip in, we can get it done. If enough people choose to free-ride, that spoils the game and we take our balls and go home.

    I would be perfectly happy to pay more in taxes, but only if everyone does. Instead my extra goes to Centraide/ United Way.

    • Adam Kamp

      Exactly. Why would we accept a free-rider tax system? We end up with a system of taxing social responsibility. And if you buy the maxim that anything you tax you get less of, relying on social responsibility for your taxes will harm society as a whole.

      • AlisonCummins

        The more people perceive free riding, the less sustainable the system is.  Some people perceive welfare recipients to be free riders; I know some welfare recipients, so I don’t. Others perceive the wealthy to be free riders; I don’t know enough to have a sophisticated opinion, but while I believe much wealth to be associated with free riding I’m not convinced it’s primarily taxes that are at issue.

        Paying taxes *is* social responsibility, to a large extent. So that argument is as nonsensical as someone carrying loaded guns in the back seat of the car getting all offended that their “law abiding” self got arrested for carrying loaded guns in the back seat of the car.

      • AlisonCummins

        To put it another way. Matt proposes that if government were such a great investment that we’d all be falling over ourselves to pay more taxes as individuals. The problem is that when I invest in the society I live in by paying extra tax, the dividend is split among all of us while I have made the entire investment. So I don’t. If I thought that everyone was putting money in the kitty towards our common project and we were all going to get something back, I’d be happy to put in more (up to a point) if others were going to as well.

        Which is why people like me neither volunteer to pay more tax as individuals nor complain about tax increases as a whole. We do, however, strongly object to corruption, and we vote.

        Typically people will accept high taxes and poverty if the government and elites are perceived to be honest and they will accept corruption in government and business if the society as a whole is prosperous. All societies are constantly struggling to find this equilibrium. 

        • Michael J. Green

          The United States Government is over $15 trillion in debt and has been averaging $1 trillion deficits these past few years. “Common projects” are getting done whether Buffett and friends have to pay a few extra dollars a year or not. If Buffett or anyone else is seriously concerned about the debt or the “fairness” of the current tax code, there is no reason for them to not voluntarily send in money. Just as there is no reason for them to refuse to feed a starving person because not everyone else will do likewise, nor will hunger be wiped out by their statistically insignificant act of charity. And in neither case does the individual act preclude arguing and working for larger measures that make “free riders”/misers pay.

      • j_m_h

        I don’t believe anyone said anything about only voluntary taxes so the claim of free-riders is a red-herring. However, since you bring it up, how do you balance the problem of free-riding with force carrying (the flip side of taxation story)?  Like statistical type one and type two errors, reducing the amount of one typically results in increasing the other.

    • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

      Don’t be silly. It’s game theory. If we all chip in, we can get it done.
      If enough people choose to free-ride, that spoils the game and we take
      our balls and go home.

      But why doesn’t this argument apply just as well to private charity? Isn’t there a similar “free rider” problem there? And yet people give much more generously to private charity than they do to government. Why?

      It seems to me that in the case of both private charity and giving to government, it’s a mistake to think that unless everyone gives, the value of individual contributions is negligible, or even significantly diminished. Yes, it’d be better if everyone gave to OXFAM, and not just me. But me $25 donation still achieves a real and significant result. The same is true for contributions to government. It’s not like, say, voting, where your vote does *no* good unless everyone else’s votes tie. A $25 dollar donation to government might make a small difference, but it makes a difference.

      • AlisonCummins

        Because taxes supply services to all of us, whereas charity supplies services to someone else.

        If I want everyone in the country to have access to health and drug  insurance (which as a Canadian and a Quebecker, I have) then I happily pay my 6% payroll tax. I used to pay less than my share, but now I may be paying more. I want everyone to have the security that I do and I’m happy to pay a little more than my share knowing that everyone is chipping in what they can.

        If I want fancier medical care and more drugs *only* for myself, I might buy a plan or start stockpiling cash.

        If I want better medical care and drug accessibilty *only* for the desperately poor, then I’ll give to charity.

        What I really want is an equitable society where we all work together. If I think that getting a CT scan with every medical checkup is the right thing, then I need to accept that it’s the right thing for everyone and not just for me. I need to — along with everyone else — pay a level of tax that will provide a CT scan with every medical checkup for every resident of the province. If that bill looks a little high, then maybe CT scans aren’t that important after all. I have to work with my neighbours and fellow-citizens to get a balance that we can live with.

        I want good medical care for all Canadian residents. I don’t want anyone to have to jump through hoops to prove that they are the deserving poor and warrant charity, or that they had the foresight to buy the right insurance. That robs people of dignity and I want to preserve the dignity of the people I live among.

        Whatever happened to enlightened self-interest? I’m happier when I am healthy and so is everyone else. I am not happy when I’m healthy and my neighbours are not, and vice versa. There is no real-world example where either charity or private insurance or a combination of the two provide easily-accessible universal health care.

        • j_m_h

          “Because taxes supply services to all of us, whereas charity supplies services to someone else.”

          That’s only partially true. Some taxes provide services to all other provided services to specific groups will little to no direct benefit to specific tax payers funding the program.

      • http://www.facebook.com/hidalgoj Javier Samuel Hidalgo

        I want to add a friendly amendment to Matt’s argument.

        Some people object to your argument by claiming that the issue is compliance or free-riding. They argue: I don’t want to pay more in taxes. I want everyone to pay more in taxes (myself included).

        Here is one, Schmidtzian-inspired response. People who are worried about compliance can always sign assurance contracts. Under an assurance contract, people only need to pay if enough people agree to the contract to make the project viable (can’t you do this via Kickstarter?). So, people can sign assurance contracts to donate X amount to the government. But, notice, people don’t do that either.

      • EB

        Private charity is a transfer of money from one person X to another Y explicitly for the benefit of Y. Private charities raise money by virtue of a whole range of features attractive to potential donors–religious agreement, effectiveness, perceived urgency, etc. Individual potential donors will have different priorities regarding such features; at the same time some private charities will do better than others due to convergence of the preferences of many individuals. There is no problem of free-riding here at all.

        A common good (I’m going to avoid the technical term ‘public good’ here) is one that is provided to (potentially) all persons* and is ultimately supplied by taxation because of the free-rider problem. This is because a common good has to be provided by X, Y, Z, etc. and is consumed by X, Y, Z. Considerations of fairness and of the viability of the common good require that free-riding be discouraged strongly–say, through taxation.

        *not everyone uses unemployment insurance, but anyone can.

        • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

          Most charitable donations aren’t made from person X to another individual person Y for the purpose of benefiting Y specifically. If I give money to the Red Cross to relieve suffering in the wake of an earthquake, there’s no specific person I’m intending to benefit. What I’m trying to do is help solve (or ameliorate) a larger social problem. Of course, my individual contribution alone will usually be insufficient to do this. I’m dependent upon other people chipping in as well.

          But for large problems, we seem to face a familiar dilemma: if enough other people chip in, then I don’t need to, because they’ve addressed the problem for me. If enough other people don’t chip in, then I don’t need to either, because my contribution by itself isn’t going to be enough. So there’s an incentive to free ride, no?

          • 3cantuna

            It is a larger social problem when free ridership is denied by state force. Free riding is also a safety valve of conscience. Why should anyone be forced to contribute to the CIA or Pentagon North Africa Command? 

          • EB

            Good point. I think I was being too abstract. Perhaps this makes more sense. There is a collective action problem re: charity, but one that is normally solved by virtue of the fact that they have certain values that square with the mission of the charity and they take the reasons as agent-relative and not seriously dependent on what others do. We know this because many charities are successful, while others do not. But this sort of collective action problem is not a free-rider problem because the donor does not draw on the goods s/he contributes to the production of nor does s/he expect to. (I suppose that the alleviation of poverty can be for the benefit of even the wealthy, supposing it contributes well-functioning society, but this does not seem to me to be a typical reason for which people contribute to charity.)

            The common goods produced through government are often ones that persons will have a hard time seeing agent-relative reasons to contribute to the production of, since many are far in the background of everyday practice and are often highly institutionally complicated. Thus, many people fool themselves about the provision of those resources and take them for granted. When they actually draw on those goods (an important difference from charity), the dependence of the provision of those goods on the contribution of all is masked by these and other factors. This is a free-rider problem and is one that is plausibly best addressed by the state and compulsory taxation. (I should put in a word for Elinor Ostrom’s analysis of collective-nonstate governance of common pool resources, as it is a very interesting and empirically-informed approach to these issues and I never see it taken up in these sorts of discussions.)

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            I think it is a kind of free rider problem. If we feel we have an obligation to help where there is serious suffering, the obligation may be felt as a burden, in which case one may still help but somewhat reluctantly. But if by holding back for a while we can make it likely that someone else will relieve the suffering, we are released from the obligation (because the suffering is no longer there), so we are getting that benefit without contributing.

          • EB

            I see your point, but I think that when people contribute to charity they do it more for agent-relative reasons. That is, their deliberative train is more like “I have a reason to see to it that I help the Xs” not “I have a reason to see to it that the Xs are helped.” The latter may be felt as a burden (though I’m not sure that’s the word I would use in this formulation) and free-riding can be a matter of letting other go ahead and help the Xs so that you don’t have to and you get to feel unburdened because the Xs are better off. The former, which, again, I think is the typical way people think about charity, imposed a burden that can only be discharged by that person feeling the burden herself.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            I agree there are those two ways of looking at charity, though I don’t
            think one is more typical than another. Generally people feel they
            should have a policy/practice of contributing to charity. In that regard
            they are looking around for deserving causes to which they can
            contribute regularly. But people also respond to unfortunate
            circumstances, in which a demand for help comes out of the blue (a
            hurricane, earthquake, war, etc., or just a friend or neighbour falling
            on hard times, etc.). These things are not necessarily felt as a burden, but they can often be felt that way because they are not planned for (so they may well make a demand on resources that were already earmarked for something else).

            But the distinction I just made is not quite the same as your distinction between two types of reason, though that is a legitimate distinction, too.

          • 3cantuna

            The state form of government is not capable of dealing with social complexity to the optimal benefit of all persons. It is not its intention, for one.  The state is plunder and conquer– and will be no matter how much BHL inspired rhetoric and staff are applied. Two, the state, even if manned by angels, cannot act economically reasonable to the extent it plunders and obliterates the voluntary social division of labor. Are you familiar with the economic calculation debate? The existence of non-state private property beholden to market principle, ideologically and structurally speaking, is paramount to civilized order. The “free rider” so-called problem, even if it existed, could not logically be solved by a state apparatus when it is the very essence of statehood to free ride (and then some) by threat and fraud.

          • Damien S.

             Once again an Austrian denies the existence of air pollution and overfishing, the demonstrable effectiveness of the EPA, and the absence of effective non-state defenses against plunder.  Reality contradicts ideology, and thus must be denied.

          • 3cantuna

            Most of those problems are due to lack of property responsibility.  And the EPA?  How do you even know the cost/benefit of its existence?  These bureaucrats have no rational means to identify its economic viability. How can environmental policing be assigned to people that misallocate and waste resources inherently, as well as operate for political gain even as a matter of survival?  What is even reasonable in your claims to “reality” when you ignore the necessity of prices in the factors of production– even when it comes to the environment. Where is the accountability for an EPA? Talk about free riders.
            There is nothing but your statist beliefs backing you up.

      • http://www.realadultsex.com figleaf

        Hi Matt,

        Consider NPR and other public-radio donors: estimates are that fewer than 1% of listeners ever contribute… by some estimates closer to .1%.  Yet despite a free-ridership problem that would cause, say, most churches to close their doors, NPR continues to operate and donors continue to donate.

        More to the point, in their fundraising pitches NPR is typically extremely up front about its free-rider situation.  And yet people still donate enough for the stations to continue operating even as what remains of public funding dries up.

        Perhaps its an economies of scale thing, or maybe it’s that NPR listeners would prefer to have free riders and NPR rather than no free riders but also no NPR.

        It generally sounds to me like “libertarians,” anarchists, “classical liberals,” and other breeds of right-wing extremists would prefer no NPR to no free riders.  Also no air traffic control, no running water, no public sanitation, no paved roads, and poor and elderly people’s bodies stacked for collection on (what’s left of) public sidewalks the way they are in parts of India and were in parts of America before Social Security.

        My guess would be that Bleeding Heart Libertarians are probably more likely to donate to NPR.

        figleaf

        • j_m_h

          I think you point out how the fear or free-riding is more a hobgoblin than an actual issue most of the time. Sure we might not have that social welfare function optimum but not surprisingly the public good managed to be produced.

          That there are positive externalities is not a justification for forcing other’s to contribute.

      • Takobaka

         I think Buffett’s point is to make it a fair system.  By  personally “donating” additional funds to the government, he would be personally supporting unfairness, the precise opposite of what he’s preaching.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rick-DiMare/100000504645309 Rick DiMare

    If income taxes were being properly enforced, estate tax brackets properly structured, and a much needed land value tax added, Warren Buffet would quickly change his tune, nor would he have been able to monopolize so much wealth (really funny money) in the first place.

  • Theuncensored

    Matt, you have set up a straw man and knocked it down with an argument that is both unconvincing and totally unoriginal. The crux of Buffett’s argument is that his effective tax rate is lower than people who make much, much less than he does and that this situation is unfair. Bleeding heart libertarians should all agree with that basic principle.  His remedy for this problem is to raise taxes on the rich because he–like a vast majority of Americans–supports government spending on Medicare, Social Security, Defense, veterans, Medicaid, education, and law enforcement but does not want to go into more national debt to pay for these programs. Maybe you disagree, but please deal with the real ethical and policy problem and avoid Fox News-style soundbites.

    • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

      People can bring forward different kinds of considerations in favor of increased taxation. One kind appeals to the beneficial consequences of increased taxation, another kind appeals to considerations of fairness. My argument (and there was an argument there, whether you choose to address it or not) addressed the first kind of consideration, not the second. There are real issues of unfairness in the tax system, and I agree that the kinds of loopholes that people like Buffett can take advantage of are an instance of such. But whether we should resolve the unfairness by raising taxes on the rich or lowering taxes on the poor is an open question that must be resolved, in large part, by turning back to questions of consequence. So my argument is relevant for the fairness issue, even if it doesn’t directly address it.

      • Theuncensored

        I see your point that there are two separate questions. You
        argue that people vote with their wallets against government spending, but I
        pointed out that people vote with their ballots for government spending.
        Libertarians don’t like to admit it, but the vast majority government spending
        goes to programs that are overwhelmingly popular (http://www.gallup.com/poll/145790/americans-oppose-cuts-education-social-security-defense.aspx). The Buffet rule is an idea to finance these popular
        programs in a manner that it fair(er).

         

        More to the point, your argument is fatally flawed
        because of your implicit assumption that government is purely a philanthropic
        good and not a consumer good, but Americans support government spending that
        they benefit from (e.g. the military, Medicare, education, law enforcement, SS)
        and dislike spending that they believe will never benefit them personally (e.g.
        welfare, foreign aid, NEA). If government is a consumer good, it makes total
        sense to want as much as possible at the lowest price possible. Why would you
        pay more for the same amount coffee or pizza? the same goes for government spending.

        • 3cantuna

          Popularity does not make government a consumer good. Show me the receipts.

        • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

           You’re right that most people like most of the things that government spends its money on. They vote with their ballots for it. But that’s a cheap way of “buying” something, since the cost of your vote is mostly borne by other persons, not yourself. I think we should take people’s decisions about where to spend their money more seriously than their decisions about how to vote as an indication of what they believe to be an effective method of helping people.

          I agree that government is partially a consumer good as well as a philanthropic one. But I don’t see how that is a “fatal flaw” in my argument. If anything, it seems to strenghten it. To the extent that I benefit directly from government spending, the true “cost” of my donations to government is reduced. So this factor should lead people to give even *more* voluntarily to government. And this makes the fact that they give so little all the more striking.

          • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UCDEMBWLTO3LJOZMD7APVN65MM Tony

            But government spending is dictated by the ballot (so is taxation of course, but put that aside for the moment). So regardless of whether or not I throw in an extra $100 in my check to the IRS, my level of services will not change. So, again, you must answer the question: why would you pay more for the same amount of coffee or pizza or government? Unless or until you can answer this question, you are not offering a serious discussion. 

          • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

             So if tax receipts dropped to zero, on your view, the level of government services would remain unaffected?

          • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UCDEMBWLTO3LJOZMD7APVN65MM Tony

            Are you asking should or would? 
            Should they be affected? yes. 
            Would they be affected? probably a little. But they would not drop to zero. 

            Surely, you do not contend that the government’s expenditures have anything to do with revenues? 

          • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

             Yes, I am contending that. As I said above, the correlation is not 1:1, but it is clearly not zero. Governments cannot run deficits indefinitely without consequence. If lenders had no expectations that their loans would be repaid, governments would find it very difficult to borrow money, would they not? And if government instead funded its expenses by simply printing new money, wouldn’t this too have a consqeuence on other people’s willingness to expend this money?

            I really don’t think I’m saying anything controversial here…

          • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UCDEMBWLTO3LJOZMD7APVN65MM Tony

            In extremis, I’m sure you are correct. But the notion you put forward originally, that $X more in tax revenue results in $X more (or close to $X more) in expenditures is not only controversial but completely unsupported. Politicians spend money for a variety of reasons, but I do not think “extra revenues” is likely to be one of them. Revenue and expenditures are independent variables for the government.  

  • Richard Chappell

    Matt — are you suggesting that higher tax rates “crowd out” charitable giving at the margin?

    If not, then I don’t see your argument.  Yes, there are private charities (e.g. recommended by GiveWell) that are a lot more effective than government at doing good.  But if higher taxes tend to simply cut into people’s more selfish consumption, then that is hardly the relevant comparison, is it?

    • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

       I strongly suspect there is a crowding out effect, though I haven’t done the research to substantiate it. But I didn’t intend my argument to rely on that premise. Rather, I intended the argument to run something like this:

      1) If people believed that giving money to government was a good way to help others, they would do so voluntarily.
      2) They (mostly) don’t do so voluntarily.
      3) Therefore, they don’t believe that giving money to government is a good way to help others.
      4) It is therefore (from 3) odd for people to press for increased rates of taxation on the grounds that increased taxes will allow the government to help people.

      • Jake

        It seems like you’re missing one piece to go from point 3 to point 4 – the fact that points 1-3 are based on people’s beliefs about individual contributions, while point 4 addresses an argument based on collective contributions.  It is a plausible point of view that individual contributions to government are not a good way to help others, but collective society-wide contributions are.

        • anon

          It’s plausible, but that same situation exists in private charities that still get funded even without guarantees that the amount of cash raised will reach the activation threshold necessary to make a meaningful difference.  Matt’s argument is that if people believed in the government as a charitable organization to the extent that their rhetoric/votes indicate, they should contribute in levels similar to what private charities receive.

      • Jessica Flanigan

        Progressive liberals who favor higher taxation may agree with you on a lot of this. Obviously the government is a totally inefficient way to help others, they mess it up all the time, and they spend a lot of the money they raise on actively harming people. Worst charity ever. Where the government does have an advantage is in getting people’s money, so when liberals call for higher taxation it’s not because they think that the government is particularly well placed to help people, it’s because they think the government is particularly well placed to force people to comply with their moral obligations when they otherwise would not.

         You could be a liberal who favors higher taxes, but then says that the government should then distribute all those tax dollars to competing private charities that will spend it more efficiently.

        So I think that a typical lefty argument for taxation is probably something like: 
        1) People have a moral obligation to devote some of their income to helping others 
        2) Government can take some of their money and spend it on helping others.
        3) Just as government ought to coercively enforce laws against assault because we are morally required not to assault people, the government ought to coerce us into complying with our moral obligation to help the poor.
        4) Government ought to increase taxes insofar as that would help people, even if it’s not the most efficient way of helping people, because it ::is:: the most efficient way of getting people to pay their own money to help people. 

        Like Richard pointed out, people aren’t like, “did you see that the US government is the best charity on givewell?!” They’re more like, ‘the only way we’re gonna get money to underrepresented poor populations is if we use the state to force those fat cats to pay up. The relevant comparison then isn’t on how good the government is dollar for dollar at helping those in need, it’s in how much money (net) the government can raise to help people versus voluntary charitable giving. If you just cared about net transfers to the worst off, government starts to look like it has a huge advantage over charity.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1091737052 Chad Horne

          There seems to be a cottage industry among libertarians of (a) making up terrible arguments, (b) attributing them to liberals, (c) knocking down said arguments, and then (d) congratulating each another on how clever everyone is.  Where have you ever seen a “liberal” make the argument enumerated in (1-4)?

          Most liberals don’t think that private charity is a substitute for government-guaranteed services.  This is because liberals don’t just think it would be a good thing if everyone had, say, health insurance (although it would be a good thing).  They think that people have a *right* to basic health insurance.  That means a world in which poor people get health care from private charity is still deficient in at least one respect: a poor person’s access to health care in that world still depends on the choices of charitable institutions.  In that world, health care is not something the poor enjoy as a right, but something they are given as a gift (and thus something that could, in principle, be taken away, perhaps at the whim of a wealthy donor, or the board of a charitable organization, or whatever).

          Liberals don’t want higher taxes then as a way of “forcing” people to give to charity.  They want higher taxes as a way of paying for the various things that individuals are owed as a matter of right.

          • Damien S.

            Yep.  As I said some years ago: “charity is the poor begging for help.  Welfare is the poor having a right to help.”

            Relatedly: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.”
            -Dom Helder Camara, former Archbishop of Olinda and Recife
             
            Charity’s no substitute for welfare infrastructure, land reform, or full employment policies.

          • Jessica Flanigan

            Speaking of charity! 

            All I meant by ‘charity’ was the voluntary provision of a helpful service, in contrast to taxes which are non-voluntary. I am assuming that it’s a good/helpful when people have their rights protected, so so far liberals should be on board with the argument above. What’s the problem with it? It seems like you just object to the words I used? 
            Reframe it like this, people have an obligation not to violate rights by withholding their resources, government can get people to give their resources to satisfy the rights of others, so it should, as much as it can. This reframing says basically the same thing as 1-4.  

          • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UCDEMBWLTO3LJOZMD7APVN65MM Tony

            No, wrong again. Every time you place tax payments as point one in your argument, you are wrong. The logical order is (1) X has or should have a right to Y, (2) X cannot afford Y, (3) the government should pay for Y for X, (4) the government should tax the population to pay for Y rather than run a deficit. 

            No liberal (or at least very very few) would favor taxes if X has no right to Y, if X can afford Y or the government should not pay for Y. No one wants taxes for the sake of taxation.   

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UCDEMBWLTO3LJOZMD7APVN65MM Tony

          No one would EVER make that “typical left argument.” 

      • Richard Chappell

        But Matt, that’s a *terrible* argument!  Your premise (1) only holds if we interpret “good” to mean something close to “best”, whereas (4) only follows if by “not good” we mean something must stronger than “not best”, but more like “no good at all”.

        After all, it’s not odd at all to press for a “second-best” outcome if the best (forcing everyone to donate to GiveWell’s top-rated charities, say) is not on the table.

        • Jessica Flanigan

          Richard- do you really think that giving to the government is second best? 

          Say there are two charities. Charity One (C1) is top rated by givewell but it is terrible at fundraising. C2 is really inefficient, but awesome at fundraising, for whatever reason. C2 can transfer way more money (net) to poor people than C1. But, C2 has other problems. First, it doesn’t give to people who are the most in need, only people who live in a certain territory and people it likes. Second, C2 spends even more of it’s considerable funds on useless pay outs to people it likes (say, old people) and a big hunk of its war chest on, well, wars, including the drug war and bombing innocents. 

          It seems like if you are in a position to choose which charity to give to you should obviously give to C1. What’s more interesting is whether the ‘second best’ is giving to C2 or nothing. On one hand C2 does spend some of it’s money helping people, but voluntarily giving to it would make you complicit in murder and all sorts of other awful stuff. 

          For that reason, you should think it is not only silly to voluntarily overpay extra taxes, but it may be morally wrong. 

        • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

          “Terrible”? With emphatic asterisks and everything? Sheesh. Really?

           My first premise was:

          1) If people believed that giving money to government was a good way to help others, they would do so voluntarily.

          You say that this only holds if we interpret “good” to mean something close to “best.” But that doesn’t sound right to me. People give a lot of money to a wide range of different charities, and it’s not clear to me that all of them think that the charity they give to is the “best.” The relevant threshold is “good enough to warrant my financial support,” which is far lower than “best.”

          So once we see that, your problem with 4 seems to go away. If “not good” really just meant “not best,” then I guess it wouldn’t be so odd for people to want to force others to contribute. But if “not good” means “not worthy of my financial support,” then it does seem kind of odd, doesn’t it?

          Not a terrible objection, but a misguided one! :-)

          • Richard Chappell

            I don’t think it’s at all odd to combine the following:

            (i) Believing that, at the margin,  the government would do more good with additional money than would the average consumer.

            (ii) Feeling disinclined to donate to the government as a charity.

            A natural explanation for (ii) is that the government is neither optimally philanthropic nor especially emotionally heartwarming (the way that churches, puppy shelters, and other “sub-optimal but successful at fund-raising” charities tend to be).

            But that’s no reason at all to think that belief (i) is false.  And (i) seems perfectly sufficient (at least to any with consequentialist leanings) to warrant a preference for higher taxes, nothing “odd” about it.

            (Of course, there might be other reasons to think that the belief in (i) is false, but that would be a different argument.)

          • Jessica Flanigan

            Fwiw there are a lot of reasons to not believe in (1), at least in the US…. but say it’s true. Do you also think this about corporations?

            Say at the margins, profits for drug companies, or Microsoft, will do more good than any one person would, (e.g. by facilitating more therapeutic drug development, or indirectly via a charity like the gates foundation) and we all believe this to be true.

             Even then, it would still be really surprising to see people sending checks to Merck and Microsoft. It would be especially odd if people called for public policy that ::required:: us to buy Merck drugs and Windows stuff, and to just send extra checks to their corporate offices so that Merck and Microsoft could further help people, ::even if:: the companies would in fact help people more than the average consumer. Based on your argument, why is the government different? 

          • Richard Chappell

            Political feasibility.  Presumably if “redistribution to drug companies” was a feasible option, then so would be more-optimal policy alternatives, e.g. redistribution to GiveWell.  If not, if it really were both itself feasible, and the best among our feasible policy options, then yes that would be perfectly sensible to advocate.

            (And, again, that there would be nothing remotely “odd” about a consequentialist supporting this — given the stipulations about the comparatively higher expected value — despite patronizing more optimal charities themselves.)

          • http://www.facebook.com/hidalgoj Javier Samuel Hidalgo

            Richard, I think Matt’s argument is stronger than you suggest.

            Consider people with the following beliefs:

            (i) At the margin, the government would do more good with additional money than would the average consumer.

            (ii) People have good moral reasons to donate to private charities rather than the government.

            Now, consider the following explanation of why people might reasonably accept (ii).

            If people have good reason to believe that the government does a middling job at helping people as well as many  terrible things with tax revenues (i.e. foreign wars, drug wars, etc), then people plausibly have good reasons to refrain from donating to the government.

            If this is the explanation for why people should or in fact do accept (ii), then this puts pressure on (i). That is, if this explanation of (ii) is true, then people who accept (i) may have good reason to reject the view that the government would do more good with additional money than would the average consumer.

            Now, I’m not sure whether this can explain the beliefs of many actual people, although I suspect that it can. But suppose that this account can explain the beliefs of some people. For these people, Matt’s arguments seem in good shape. Given the reasons that these people refrain from donating to the government, they should also reject the idea that the government would do better with their money than they would.

        • j_m_h

          I think you’re focused on debunking the position that Matt articulated rather than understanding his argument and the underlying behaviors observed that prompt the argument.

          1) nothing forces people to make charitable contribution.
          2) charitable contributions can be made to private organization or to government.
          3) a trivial amount of charitable donations are given to government.
          4) taxes are a given, a sunk cost, are neutral to one’s charitable givings.
          5) charitable giving will be allocated to organizations the donor believes will accomplish the most with the donated funds.

          Clearly the statistics show that people in general don’t think their donation will be put to as good a use by government as by the private organization.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UCDEMBWLTO3LJOZMD7APVN65MM Tony

        Fundamental error: your point one assumes a connection between tax receipts (“giving money to government”) and expenditures (“a good way to help others”). There is no reason to believe this is true, and in fact, all evidence is to the contrary. 

        • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

          I’ll grant that the correlation is far from 1:1, but surely it’s not zero, right?

  • Wilson263

    A few points…

    1) The opening paragraph basically outlines my perspective exactly. I usually get accused by debating partners as being a rigid anarcho-capitalist/libertarian/classical liberal/robot who will never admit the government can/should do anything at all, but the truth is that I don’t see anything wrong with the notion of the government doing things to improve human welfare/utility/happiness/whatever (on net) by, say, providing (actual) public goods. It just happens to be the case that it is (seemingly) almost never in a position to do so (and as such, I oppose/am skeptical towards most attempts). The situations where the government can actually help without simply creating a larger problem (or, optimistically, shifting the problem to someone else) seem to be quite limited.

    2) The counter-arguments (namely the ‘free-rider’ argument) in the comments to voluntary taxes hinge on whether the taxes are being used for actual public goods (in the economic sense). For instance…

    AlisonCummins:

    To put it another way. Matt proposes that if government were such a
    great investment that we’d all be falling over ourselves to pay more
    taxes as individuals. The problem is that when I invest in the society I
    live in by paying extra tax, the dividend is split among all of us
    while I have made the entire investment. So I don’t.

    Because taxes supply services to all of us, whereas charity supplies services to someone else.

    So this is a pretty classic free-rider problem as applies to public goods; no rational individual would voluntarily pay for the public good because they can benefit without doing so. The net result is that the public good is not provided, or is provided as sub-optimal levels. The weakness of this argument in the current discussion is that most of the government’s spending does not go towards public goods Programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and Welfare, which together make up a majority of the federal budget in the US (I’m not even counting the Defense spending that goes far beyond ‘public good’), aren’t public goods by any standard that I’ve heard.

    So while the free-rider problem is a real issue for financing public goods, most of the things the government does aren’t public goods, and so free-riders aren’t a problem.

    Of course, you could counter-argue that all of these programs are public goods, but since most of them are basically just taking money from one person and giving it to another, it seems like most charity (helping “other people”) could then be called a public good. And if that’s the case, then we’re left wondering why people volunteer $300 billion for charity but only $3 million for government (as per Matt’s original point).

    Basically, the free-rider problem is a dead-end in arguing against voluntarily paying more in taxes to the government as it actually exists, although your case would be stronger if we were talking about some kind of Minarchist Libertopia or Classical Libertopia (where the government is credibly providing only or primarily public goods).

    3) Jessica Flanagan makes a good point…

    So I think that a typical lefty argument for taxation is probably something like:

    1) People have a moral obligation to devote some of their income to helping others

    2) Government can take some of their money, thus forcing them to comply with their moral obligations

    3)
    Just as government ought to coercively enforce laws against assault
    because we are morally required not to assault people, the government
    ought to coerce us into complying with our moral obligation to help the
    poor

    4) Government ought to increase taxes insofar as that would help
    people, even if it’s not the most efficient way of helping people,
    because it ::is:: the most efficient way of getting people to pay their
    own money to help people. Like Richard pointed out, people aren’t like,
    “did you see that the US government is the best charity on givewell?!”
    They’re more like, ‘the only way we’re gonna get money to
    underrepresented poor populations is if we use the state to force those
    fat cats to pay up. The relevant comparison then isn’t on how good the
    government is dollar for dollar at helping those in need, it’s in how
    much money (net) the government can raise to help people
    versus voluntary charitable giving. If you just cared about net
    transfers to the worst off, government starts to look like it has a huge
    advantage over charity.

    My main counter-argument would be, vis-a-vis voluntary taxes, that if liberals/progressives (who support raising involuntary taxes, presumably to help the poor) thought that each individual had a moral obligation to give more to the poor than is currently being given, then they would still have and would always have had the option of themselves giving more to the government via voluntary donations.

    That is, if it were their belief that they (and everyone) had a moral obligation to increase the net money given to the poor then in addition to their support for higher taxes, they should also voluntarily give their own money to the government even if not required by taxes (because this would cause a net increase in money for the poor, even if by less than the amount achieved by a tax). But if you divided the total money donated to the government voluntarily by however many Progressives support higher taxes for that reason, the resulting number would probably be less than $0.25. That’s not a lot of caring.

    An alternative might be that they could give to charity (presumably more effective than government), but unless I’m mistaken, liberals reliably give less to charity than conservatives (or at least, I’ve never seen a study where they out-give by some wide margin).

    So I have an alternative hypothesis: Liberals/Progressives want to signal support for the poor and voting for everyone else to “give” money (rather than giving money themselves) is the cheapest way to do that. The outcomes for the poor/society beyond that are more or less unimportant once the signal has been sent. Voting to give $1000 to the poor is way cheaper than actually just giving $1000 dollars to the poor, but emotionally it’s the same thing (at least for some people), so that’s what they do.

    • Jay_Z

      If you don’t think Medicare, SSI, etc. are public goods, you probably don’t think anything is a public good.

      • Wilson263

         Please explain how Medicare and/or Social Security (etc) are public goods in the economic sense of the term.

        Are they non-excludable? No.

        Are they non-rivalrous? No.

  • Jay_Z

    I don’t consider the government a charity.  I consider it a service provider.  Most of the things it does the private market cannot provide.  Private market would never provide SSI or IUI, and it didn’t provide Medicare.  I would not trust property protection or armies to the private market.

    I don’t volunteer to give more money to private service providers, why would I to the government?  When Republicans are in power, any money I gave would go out the door as a tax cut to someone who didn’t need or deserve it anyway.

    Even though I get my health insurance through the private market (like almost everyone, through group insurance provided by my employer) I don’t consider that charity.  I pay for the service, and I may or may not get more than “my share” in return.  There’s no other way for me or pretty much anyone else to get this service other than to commit to it as a group.  I don’t consider this charity.  I also don’t consider the fundraisers for people who can’t pay their medical bills to be a thing to be desired; everyone should have access to insurance.  I’m no better or more capable of paying for those types of bills than they are.

    • j_m_h

      I think the above displays the, or at least a primary, political question and conflict we’re confronting: What is the role and function of government. 

      Government as a service provider? What is the service? For most libertarians and some classical liberals (very early maybe) the service is impartial law enforcement and impartial generation of legislation. Smith suggested postal services because it’s so simple government cannot screw it up.

      But clearly there’s scope for additional roles — but exactly what those roles might be and exactly how we correctly assign the role (market competition? might not be quite as easy to implement as some think) where government can deliver a better result than private markets?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1091737052 Chad Horne

    Suppose I’m a wealthy philanthropist and I’m trying to decide between writing a big check to a private charity or writing one to the U.S. government.  Well, government spending levels are fixed by Congress, so giving my money to the government won’t (on it’s own) cause them to undertake any new projects or expand any existing ones.  In other words, the government is going to spend the same amount of money on the helping -people business whether I write them a check or not.  

    On the other hand, if I give my money to a private charity (assuming, at least, that it’s a a sufficiently large amount–remember, I’m not just a philanthropist; I’m a wealthy philanthropist!), then there’s good reason to think that they will undertake new projects or expand existing ones.  In other words, the total amount of helping-people-business going on will increase.

    So it seems to me that the decision to give to private charity dominates the decision to give to the government.  In the world where I give to private charity, there’s all the same helping-people business going on as in the world where I give to the government, plus some new helping-people business spurred by my donation.

    The only way it would be rational to give the money directly to the government is if I believed that the bad consequences of increased public indebtedness outweigh the good consequences of the extra helping-people-activities caused by giving to private charity.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UCDEMBWLTO3LJOZMD7APVN65MM Tony

      Yes. Or put another way, tax revenues do not dictate government spending, but charitable donations DO dictate charity spending. This is because the government can borrow money in ways that charities cannot. 

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1091737052 Chad Horne

         That was so much more succinct than what I said!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000255660644 Donald Mathews

    No one wants higher taxes as such but I do want to pay our bills.  I believe in a balanced budget and no deficit spending.  If we had a constitutional amendment to have all money spent married to an associated tax then we would have higher taxes.  It would also mean that if we had to pay a tax to go to war maybe we would think twice about going to war and that’s the way it is supposed to work

    • j_m_h

      I’d even be open to bond issues if taxes could not be raised simply to repay the loan. that would allow a fairly obvious market evaluation of the planned spending in terms of increased social value, at least in a pecuniary sense — that could be used. We’d also want to have some interest rate threshold, if the discount on the bonds is too high it’s clearly not a smart plan.

  • http://www.realadultsex.com figleaf

    Economically speaking why would you donate money specifically to reduce the deficit?  Particularly when interest rates on Federal debt is essentially negative?

    And if you could earmark where your donations go other than deficit reduction (it appears you can’t) then what would stop you from earmarking it to programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit, which provides direct, unencumbered assistance to people identifiable as needy at lower overhead than all but the most frugal domestic NGOs.  Or donate it to desperately shoestring-budgeted programs where boosting, say, a specific NSF research grant by an extra $1000, or even an extra $10 would produce more tangible results than a comparable donation to more popular but higher-overhead, vaguely-purposed charities like Komen or Save the Children?

    But as I say, except for deficit reduction you really can’t earmark donations to the
    “Gifts to the United States Government” account.

    One wonders, incidentally, whether the fund would be so obscure (there are relatively very few references to it on Google, for instance) if they had done what many other popular charities do and spent a significant fraction of that $3.2 million on promoting itself, holding black tie soirees, hiring lobbyists to elbow-rub, forming a high-signaling-value board of directors, etc.  Instead of, you know, just sump-pumping 100% of proceeds into the general fund.

    I dunno, gang. Why is BHL letting so many “classical liberals” post here?  Between arguments that liberals should celebrate Catholic bishop’s campaign to prevent women from using contraception? And querying why liberals just donate their own money instead of asking others to pay taxes I’m getting the impression that “classical liberal” is a euphemism for “average NRO conservative.”  I mean, what’s next?  A “classical liberal” argument for demanding Barack Obama’s birth certificate?  A “classical liberal” argument for overturning the ACA to keep the government from forcing us to eat broccoli?

    I mean, if there’s going to be a policy of letting non-libertarians guest post why not open it up a bit and invite someone from, I dunno, the Young Socialist Alliance to bloviate about their narrow constructions and agenda-driven redefinitions so we can have fun mocking their stupid non-libertarian ideas too.

    figleaf

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HSKXAWKADVEXMD6SG7DRBB7H3I Silly Wabbit

      Figleaf, 
         I really like this blog and I think that most of the people who post here are great. However, as you point out there seems to be an upswing in “right-conflationist” posts. I understand that most of the bloggers here have direct and sometimes deep ties to the monied interests driving conservatism (at least its more libertarian side; not the Focus on the Family crowd) but there are some great discussions here that tend to deviate far off course. 

         My suspicion is that election year politics have caused this right-ward drift and sometime circa early 2013 we can get back to the way the blog was just a few months ago.  

         Election years are probably the time that libertarians should be most clearly articulating a vision that is an alternative to either of the parties and rises about the fray of talk show memes like “tell buffet to donate!”. Matt Z. is really smart and, though I have never met him, seems to be a genuinely likable human being. Nothing I have said is meant to be a personal attack. 

         I really hope this isn’t a new trend on this blog. At my most cynical moments I think that the wealthy power brokers that have been so central to forging american libertarianism are circling the wagons for the election year and pulling the deep thinkers along with them. 
         
          

         

      • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

        I have the feeling that this is probably the kind of comment that I ought not respond to, but, FWIW, I almost never think about electoral politics at all, let alone when deciding what to blog about or how. I have no desire to see Mitt Romney elected. I do think it would be a good thing if taxes were generally lower, but that’s a standard libertarian position, not a right-conflationist one. I recognize that even if someone like Romney were to lower taxes, the net results of his policies as a whole would almost certainly involve a loss to liberty.

        I wrote this post because:
        a) the argument it expressed seemed right to me
        b) it was tax day and I thought it might be topical
        c) I’d stumbled upon the government donation website and thought it might be a cute hook

        and I made the choice to keep it short and punchy rather than long and more thoroughly argued because, well, given most of the verbose stuff we run on this blog I figured a change in pace every once in a while would be a good thing.

        Anyways, you said not to interpret your comments as a personal attack, and I don’t. But I thought I’d clarify, just in case anyone cares. :-)

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HSKXAWKADVEXMD6SG7DRBB7H3I Silly Wabbit

          Matt, 
             Thanks for the thoughtful reply and thank you for not internalizing my commentary. 
              I think the “circle the wagons” process in the blogosphere is not conscious or deliberate and I didn’t mean to suggest that the libertarian ideoscape was working in some  deliberate collective fashion to diffuse Fox News talking points. 
              Its more about how memes circulate and cultural events (yes major elections are cultural as much as political events) foment the “circle the wagons” process. 
               Again no offense meant. I really like your posts and will get around to reading some of your academic lit eventually…..
              
              

  • Damien S.

    a) I don’t think most people know of a government donation channel.  Mentally it’s not salient at all.

    b) People arguably give to feel good about themselves, not just ‘do good’ in objective senses.  There’s probably psychological payoff to feeling like a charitable superior giving to those in need.  Donating to the almighty state on top of one’s taxes doesn’t do that.  Gov’t has the biggest budget, so one’s donation will look the relatively smallest and most ineffective.  And if you tell your friends you donated $X to the government they’ll probably look at you funny because no one does that, rather than praising you for how generous you were.

    c) People like feeling in control of their gifts.  Often, after some major disaster, I’ve seen relief agencies eventually beg people not to give donations earmarked to the disaster, but to give cash to the general fund.  But people want to feel “I’m giving to help the Haitians”, not to give to Doctors Without Borders worldwide, even if they object to nothing in particular that DWB does.  And government is the ultimate general fund, plus almost always including in its activities something that someone doesn’t like.

    d) If one wants to help those most in need, donating to government is inefficient.  *Not* because it’s inefficient at helping people when it tries — I think it’s quite efficient — but because of most of what it does isn’t even trying to help those most in need.  Much of a modern government is a broadly defined middle class helping itself out, not welfare: social security, social insurance, roads, public schools, police and prisons.  There’s the military.  There’s lots of little public goods, like the EPA and NSF and USGS, which are public goods, but aren’t specifically helping the poorest.  Helping poor citizens is a small faction.  Helping poor foreigners is an infinitesimal fraction.

    And that generalizes to any specific thing one might care about, to interact with (b) and (c).  If you want to save the environment, the Nature Conservancy is more targeted than donating to the general fund to help the EPA a bit.  That doesn’t mean the government is inefficient at saving the environment, it means the government is doing many many things besides whatever issue provoked someone to an altruistic donation.

    Buffet donated to the Gates foundation, which focuses on Third World disease control.  From a global utilitarian POV this is awesome.  Donating to the US government would be ineffective, not because the US gov’t is inefficient at what it does but because what it does is not driven by global utilitarianism and it thus has pretty much no concern with Third World diseases.

  • Damien S.

     Heh.  Parallel posts: figleaf’s note of the IRS channel not spending any money on PR like charities do pre-emptively expands my point of limited awareness.  And Chad inadvertently reminds me of specific “feel good” benefits: charities will drop gifts and fancy titles on big donors, and if you’re big enough they’ll name things after you.  Heck,  If the government had similar policies — don’t cities, sometimes? — I’m sure it could raise a lot more.

    Also, is donating to the gov’t tax deductible?

  • j_m_h

    Matt you first paragraph sets the stage incorrectly. I think a major problem is that most seem to take this situation to be one of independence and separability between “market” and “government”. I think the reality is that it’s a joint production function, to put it in economist speak.

    In certain cases I suspect a good first approximation can allow one to assume independence and separability but that cannot be the stoping place — or even the starting place in many cases. 

    It reminds me of , I think, Hal Varian’s comment about The Theory of Market Failure, where he noted that in virtually every case that was offered the government was involved at some point. 

  • Joe J Grimm

    I think that Matt Z is misrepresenting what Warren Buffet has said. I believe that Warren makes two distinct claims. The first claim is that the only fair way for the US government to raise revenue is through a tax scheme adhering to the principle that the tax rate is progressive when investors are compared to non-investors. In the context of taxation in America he, and others like him,  are treated with unfair favoritism. This can only be remedied by making his taxes, and those of others like him, larger in comparison to those who are less well off.

    He is complaining that the government is not treating the American people fairly, voluntary contribution on his part won’t change that. Likewise, if he personally were to pay more (enough to be fair in comparison to the tax burden of poorer Americans), the tax system would be unfair for singling him out from among his wealthy peers.

    He separately argues that his tax burden should go up, rather others down, because, over all, he approves of the way his government spends money. But the claim that his taxes should go up is a separate point.

  • 3cantuna

    Government can do some good in principle?  What is this principle– and what criteria does it rest on?  How do you know the price of this good- be it a service or thing provided–when the government naturally destroys economizing up front?  It is my understanding that one of the failures of classic liberalism is a whiggish perception of a positive role for the state.  Is it necessary for classic liberals now to have such an absolutist need for the state form of government? 

  • good_in_theory

    “If we wouldn’t (and don’t) give our own money voluntarily to government, doesn’t this tell us something about whether we should try to force other people to give more of theirs under threat of legal penalty?”

    Well, if “we” are the proletariat and “other people” are the bourgeoisie, the answer is pretty obvious: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

    Perhaps not a palatable answer for many, but a perfectly salient one nonetheless.

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  • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

    Matt,
    I’m glad to see you back in form as a heartless, uncaring, me-first quasi-libertarian. I thought for a little while that some space aliens had carried you away to planet Social Justice. Needless to say, I completely agree with your first paragraph. However, I suspect that the reason you object to most governmental activities is not just (or even primarily) that “there are very often (almost always?) superior non-governmental alternatives for better achieving the same end,” but that such interventions are also rights-violating.

    Most (all?) classical liberals regard the state’s role in supplying national defense and law enforcement as morally legitimate. Accordingly, I am wondering what you regard as the key ethical distinction between the state’s involvement here, and with respect to those areas that should be left to the private sector.

    • j_m_h

      But I don’t think the classical liberal position is just that governments enforce law but that the government also is a social institution for law formation. Or am I wrong on that point?

      If I’m not wrong then that clearly opens to door to Matt’s point, regardless of what label one want’s to put on the idea — social justice, equity in social welfare, ensuring free markets (fair markets?) …

      • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

        Hi JMH,
        Good to hear from you. And, no I don’t think you are wrong. But, as a minimal state libertarian, I am not questioning Matt’s position that the state is required for certain things, especially military defense and law formation and enforcement. I am just curious about his reasoning, which is probably different than mine. Have I missed your point? Sorry, if I have.

        • j_m_h

          Hey Mark. Always good hearing from you.

          We’ll have to hear what more Matt wants to say about his reasoning.

          And, no it’s certainly correct to ask for clarifications or expansion of someone’s rationale.

          My only point is that there does seem to be a strong resistance to exploring the ideas that Matt and others on this Blog. If find it a bit odd if, as I said, we agree that classical liberals and I think even move variants of libertarians view law formation as a legitimate scope of government. This isn’t to say that certain rights don’t have precedence over mere legislation. However, that also implies that we need to question that absolute position on property rights unless we’re going to reject the heritage of classical liberals.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Although I don’t think I quite fit within the classical liberal fold, I agree with your thought. With respect to this particular post, I think that there is a pretty wide spectrum of opinion represented on this blog, but that those generally sympathetic to the post often don’t participate in the discussion, while those opposed jump in with both feet. So, the ideas expressed here may not be representative.

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  • Bb

    Dumbest post on the web today.  Congrats Matt Z.  You win!

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  • wickedethicist

    I dispute the premise of this article.  I don’t know a single person who believes Americans need to pay higher taxes for the sake of giving the American treasury more money, and I think it’s unfair to conflate progressives or Mr. Buffett with the straw man Matt seems to be fighting.

    People do, of course, argue that the government should be willing to raise taxes in some cases.  However, those cases are nearly always specific to a competing priority.  I’ve heard a lot of die-hard progressives being cavalier with other people’s money, but I have not heard them say that high taxes are better than low taxes. They say that generally lowering taxes are good, but Policy X–whatever policy they favor, such as improvements to public education or specifically lowering taxes for the middle class instead of the super-wealthy–would be even better.  If Policy X was already achieved, rendered impossible, or otherwise taken off the table, they would no longer advocate for it, and therefore no longer advocate for high taxes.

    I also dispute that Matt is a classical liberal, as the term implies the willingness to fairly consider unfamiliar or unpopular political positions.

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  • Arturo Fernandez

    Don´t know if somebody said this already.  But asking liberals to donate to government is like asking libertains to not call the fire department if their house catches on fire.  Simply ridiculous.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/wcdeich4 William Charles Deich IV

    I think this article misses the bigger picture. According to the CATO institute, the gov’t spends about $1 Trillion on “social welfare programs” & most sources more or less agree with your estimate that Americans spend about $300 Billion on charity. From that alone, we can see that if the gov’t cut off most social welfare spending, private charity donations would have to increase by at least 330% just to do as much good as we’re doing now & since I personally know poor & homeless people who are not being helped very much, so clearly that is not enough — having said that, yes there is a lot of waste, but there’s MORE WASTE in private charity than in government charity. A lot of Mitt Romney’s charitable giving went to Exodus International – the largest organization that tries to counsel gay people into being straight — now that’s really controversial & I don’t want to take a side on it — but I hope we can all agree that is NOT “charitable” in the sense it is not helping feed the hungry or shelter the homeless. Likewise, many churches characterize their giving as “outreach” which includes sending missionaries to other countries & evangelistic rallies in big stadiums etc. Now, I’m not against people spreading their religions whatsoever at all — but again, that’s not feeding the hungry or shelter the homeless.

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