• Pingback: Cordial and Sanguine, Part 42: What Government Has Built()

  • Sean II

    That was a great post – well worth the 36 hours of clinical depression I must now suffer for having visited the comments section at Huffington Post.

    • You need to get around a lot more…have you tried Yahoo? Or RedState? Or any of the wackaloon conspiracy-theory sites? I can think of far worse comment forums to spend time in.

      • Sean II

        Oh I’ve seen them all, and I STILL hate HuffPo commenters the most.

        Yahoo and YouTube comment threads just present a cross section of regular folks, right down to the bottom of the distribution. Of course they sound childish and uneducated – most of them are working from a serious disadvantage.

        But there is just something about those pseudo-intellectual middle-brows over at HP that just gets me down in the spirits.

  • ben

    I find this whole “we the government have provided this and that which helped/protected your business, so now you owe us money” argument very reminiscent of how organized crime operates.

    They’re basically saying: Look, we have stationed a number of tough guys in this neighborhood, and your shop benefits from this protection, so you have to pay us protection money now.

    Both (the government, and criminal racketeers) are not lying about their “contributions” – the government has indeed built roads, and the mob might indeed provide genuine protection against crimes committed by rival criminals.

    But what they gloss over, is that those “contributions”…
    a) did not happen with the consent of, and especially not with contractual promises by, the “beneficiaries”.
    b) do in many cases actually make the “beneficiaries” worse off on the whole (i.e. mob infested neighborhood kills businesses in the long term, tax funded government infrastructure replaces more efficient infrastructure which those taxpayers could have built themselves with the same money, …)

    • BallsAndStrikes

      This is silly. You cannot elect the mob boss, or have a representative say in what projects organized crime pursues.

      • Casey

        Because that would change everything. You would maybe have one boss who offered to only break one of your legs while the other proposed to break both.

      • JB

        This retort is sarcastic right. This is exactly what occurs. people elect mob bosses to steal from other for some perceived benefit. The joke just happens to be on gullible people because they end up enriching themselves and their backers.

  • ThaomasH

    What is “excellent” about a (can
    it be anything but) willful misunderstanding of what Obama said? Obama’s “that” clearly refers to “this unbelievable American system that we have that
    allowed you to thrive.” Any entrepreneur
    who thinks he built “that” is delusional.

    On the larger point, why
    do so many people like Mr. Gregory who understand how people using markets create wealth have “no
    enemies on the right?” Are not the “War
    on Terror” and the “War on Drugs” the major drivers of the encroachment liberty
    in the US in 2012? Are NIMBYism,
    corporate welfare and “licensing laws, regressive taxes, outright giveaways,
    farm aid, military spending contracts, absurd patent and copyright laws” regularly
    defended by and only by “liberal” politicians?

    On the larger point, why
    do so many people like Mr. Gregory who understand how people using markets create wealth have “no
    enemies on the right?” Are not the “War
    on Terror” and the “War on Drugs” the major drivers of the encroachment liberty
    in the US in 2012? Are NIMBYism,
    corporate welfare and “licensing laws, regressive taxes, outright giveaways,
    farm aid, military spending contracts, absurd patent and copyright laws” regularly
    defended by and only by “liberal” politicians?

  • Dan Kervick

    Yes, the public has built some bad things, and some unnecessary things, along with the many good and useful and necessary things its has built. All of the things the public has built have influenced the outcomes individuals have achieved, and in some very frequent cases have been causally necessary conditions for the achievement of those outcomes.

    • Sean II

      Dan,

      Even if you believe that, don’t you find it troubling (logically if not morally) that the end result is a situation where one party holds an open-ended claim against another?

      Consider a non-state example. There are many businesses who owe their prosperity to Facebook advertising, and they’ve all paid some mutually agreed sum for that advantage. What if Mark Zuckerberg falls on hard times a decade from now, and shows up at their collective doorstep saying “…this network of information, this means of influencing people, you didn’t build that, so it seems only right you should now be asked to pay me more.”

      Immediately you would see the problem with this reasoning: it has no end. If Zuckerberg somehow manages to beg a few extra dollars from these clients, surely he will come back to beg again. And why shouldn’t he keep coming, if they are foolish enough to accept a retroactive adjustment of his price?

      Surely you can see how much worse the problem would be if a) the advertisers never had a choice about using Facebook to begin with, and b) if Zuckerberg could simply force people to pay his new and infinitely adjustable price.

      So…why is this argument any better when the party making happens to be the state?

      • ben

        I thinks the root of the “logical problem” might stem from the arbitrary definition of an entity (the government) as representing the moral claims of “the public”, vs. some individuals (company owners) who are now suddenly “outside of the public”.

        In reality, “the public” consists of lots of autonomous individuals, and each of the company owners is a part of it just like anyone else. All those individuals work towards their own ends, in COOPERATION with each other – thereby “building” something which benefits (ideally) all of them.

        If, collectively, the members of “the public” agree that each of them pitch in to finance public infrastructure, then they do so to benefit *themselves*. Taxes and governments are merely the tools by which this happens. Very un-ideal, inefficient and unjust tools in fact, but that shouldn’t give government a higher moral claim, rather the opposite.

        No matter what form the “cooperation between multiple entities” takes, each participant is free to use the benefits that arise from it.

        I can see no moral foundation for the stance that consensual cooperation between multiple entities should entitle an automatic claim of some of the entities against another, BEYOND any mutually agreed-upon terms.
        (For one thing, it begs the question why it should be one-directional.)

        Yet I have seen people on the left (especially in the Marxist camp) take this sentiment for granted multiple times before, so maybe someone can shed a light on where is comes from?
        One example of where it is used, is the opinion that employees have an automatic entitlement to a share of a successful company’s profit (even after already having been compensated per the terms of their contract), because “they helped make the company successful”.

        • adrianratnapala

          If, collectively, the members of “the public” agree that each of them pitch in to finance public infrastructure, then they do so to benefit *themselves*. Taxes and governments are merely the tools by which this happens.

          This observation alone might be enough to explain the ideas of the left. If taxes are governments are the means by which the agreement to pitch in, then open ended taxation an arbitrary claim by some entity, it is just the social contract running its course (since there being no literal contract, there are no pre-agreed terms, democratic politics is the eternal renegotiation).

      • BallsAndStrikes

        Strawman. No one is arguing for “an open-ended claim against another.”

        • Sean II

          But of course the claim is open-ended, unless you can show me where Obama or Warren specified a price…or even a means of determining a price.

          You’ll notice they did not say: “We’ll have the CBO look into the costs of road and bridges and do some math to figure out who owes what.”

          They said “you couldn’t have done this without us, your success was made possible by us”.

          Go find a doctor who divorced his first wife and ask him what those words mean. It doesn’t get much more open ended than that.

        • good_in_theory

          I don’t think that’s right. A claim to taxing power is (1) a claim against another and (2) not fixed. Of course, there are practical limits, followed by principled limits, but being limited and being open-ended are compatible.

      • good_in_theory

        What’s the philosophy of government that doesn’t result in an open ended claim, other than a government that is nothing other than a fee-for-service private business?

      • good_in_theory

        Any time someone quantifies the cost of something for someone else you are dealing with an open-ended claim against another. Insofar as the form of taxation is “the government determines how much you owe them,” it necessarily creates an open-ended claim. Emergency medical care has the same potential problem.

        Alternative formulas (you determine how much you owe the government, you and the government agree on what you owe each other) are not taxation – they’re, respectively, charity and free exchange.

        The problem, then, is coming up with a way to determine the amount someone else owes you. One solution is private whim (cf: the mob). Another is various forms of democratic government. Another is whatever the heck medical billing does.

      • Dan Kervick

        I guess I don’t see the problem Sean II. Zuckerberg can assert whatever claims he wants, whenever he wants. That doesn’t mean his claims have to be respected or upheld by courts.

        Anyway, if Zuckerberg succeeded in extracting a fortune from others via the legal system, we should just extract it right back from him through the tax system. If one requires some kind of claim of right for this tax, we could cite the global hordes who populate Facebook, the neural network of human beings without which the Facebook mind as such wouldn’t even exist.

        I didn’t make any claims here about taxes. My point has been that a lot of negative the reaction to the Obama words was targeted not at his views on taxes and property, but at something like his views on the causal structure of the actual world. My own attitudes toward taxes are predominantly democratic and consequentialist, not right-based. The way actions and other events causally depend on one another is one question. The rules a society chooses to distribute and re-distribute the fruits of production are another question.

        Libertarians, as I understand them, tend to endorse normative rules of property and exchange according to which a person can often become the sole owner of something without in any plausible sense being the sole living being responsible for its existence, or even having the greatest share of causal responsibility. I usually don’t agree with their proposals, but it seems to me that the philosophical debate about that disagreement is mostly independent of the causal issues.

        I see property rights as socially constructed and malleable institutions helping to organize our economic lives. I favor whatever works best within the constraints of human nature and aspirations. So I endorse no a priori connections between the desirability of the institutions and the shares of causal responsibility for the goods produced.

        • Sean II

          The point of the Zuckerberg example was simply to show what Obama’s argument would have sounded like, had it come from a private party. Most of the people defending him now would not tolerate that for a moment. I’m simply saying they shouldn’t tolerate it from either citizens or states.

          Who would ever consent to an arrangement that allowed one party to say, at any point: “Hey, that thing you’ve got, you didn’t build it alone. Therefore I will decide how much of it you don’t own, and I will use force to extract the portion which I believe is not yours. If you don’t like it, please feel free to vote.”

  • Casey

    I think David Graeber’s work on the history of debt is actually quite useful for the right here. Once you start taking debt too seriously as an abstract category it quickly becomes irrational. There are an infinite number of circumstances that had to be aligned for you to even be born let alone to succeed in any society. Every act takes place against a background of circumstances you had nothing to do with.

    So ancient sages attempted to calculate exactly what you owed your parents and what you owed your neighborhood and the like and quickly realized that there was basically no getting out from this kind of baggage.

    Debt and what you owe someone is a useful concept within short-term economic exchanges so that you can facillitate the exchange and borrowing of resources. Once you take it beyond this, however, and start trying to calculate in any measurement what could potentially have been done with the resources you gained if you didn’t originally gain them, it literally becomes an infinite number. You end up owing more than yourself.

    So this is just a bogus argument to support government taxation and the reason the right reacts so strongly against it is because they can sense where this kind of reasoning leads, as we’ve seen it used plenty of times in totalitarian regimes.

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