Politics are patently ridiculous, “testimony” masquerading as rationalism — SilverRain.
I had an epiphany while engaging in this thread that eventually turned into a side thread about whether or not ‘taxes’ were the same as ‘theft.’ I wanted to write it down to remember it. I hope Geoff (who I have to use as an example) will realize that I’m in no way knocking his position. In fact, I hope Geoff will see that he successfully helped me understand his position better.
First, a quick summary of the ‘taxes = theft’ debate. The whole debate was between various conservatives. No liberals or even moderatres (unless you consider me a moderate) were part of the debate. Geoff and some of the more libertarian leaning commenters (LDSP, Rame, Skyler) took the stances that taxes were theft. Adam, SilverRain, and myself (to a lesser degree on this thread, though I’ve engaged in this argument elsewhere) took the stances that taxes, while they should be minimized, are not equivalent to theft. (In a humorous moment, Adam — regularly perceived as an extreme conservative — sent an email to some of us on the thread and said how much he enjoyed finding himself on the other side for a change.)
I’ve been thinking about this for a while and I realize that there is a really important point that came out of this that I personally didn’t want to forget, namely that from a certain point of view, both sides were right.
First, let me just point out that I think everyone engaged in the debate is rather intelligent. Granted, given her quote above, it’s obvious SilverRain kicks tail over all of us in terms of intelligence. But the rest of us are pretty smart too. Even Adam is. (Though rumor has it that it was actually his seven year old doing all the typing.) So it makes sense to admit the obvious: all of us had valid points of view given the set of assumptions we were each starting with. The problem was that none of us were starting with the same assumptions. Indeed, it wasn’t even clear that we all were having the same discussion at times. Let me see if I can explain what I mean.
Objectively Speaking: Taxes Are Like Theft in Some Ways, But Not Others
Consider the whole idea of taxes as ‘being theft’ or ‘not being theft.’ There are, in fact, some striking similarities between ‘taxes’ and ‘theft.’ For example, I have no doubt that both are a mandatory taking of someone elses property. And isn’t this, perhaps, one of the most important qualities of what we often call ‘theft’?
On the other hand, there are some very meaningful ways in which taxes are very much unlike theft. For one thing, if I get robbed, I don’t get equal representation with how the robber spends my former money after the fact. Plus, I don’t get equal representation on how much I’m going to get robbed next time. Further, robbers don’t end up spending money on public goods like roads and schools. In fact, unless we’re talking about Robin Hood, robbers rarely if ever actually rob from the rich to give to the poor.
So on the one hand taxes are like theft in at least one very meaningful way — it’s forced. But it’s also objectively unlike theft in some very meaningful ways as well. And this really is objectively the case, so it’s not just a matter of opinion.
It Depends On Your Point of View?
Now put yourself in, say, Geoff’s (or other non-anarchist Libertarian commenter’s) shoes for a moment. (I’m going to use Geoff as the example because this was his post.) Geoff isn’t against government. He’s not even really against ‘taxes’ per se. He just wants ‘taxes’ to be indirect sorts of taxes, like tariffs. (As per the original constitution!) He makes several points about why her prefers this approach that I’m not going to summarize, but a couple jump out as me as good examples of where he is coming from.
First, when you have taxes through tariffs they are often ‘hidden’ in the cost of the goods. Second, you don’t have to buy the goods, and therefore you perceive some level of control over how much you are being taxes. (Ignoring Adam’s counter argument here for the moment.) Third, its harder (but probably not impossible) to collect enough taxes through tariffs to set up massive entitlement programs, and Geoff particularly dislikes entitlement programs.
If I really want to understand why Geoff insists on calling ‘taxes’ (which we now know is limited to ‘income taxes’) a type of theft you have to put yourself in Geoff’s political shoes and experience taxes as he experiences them.
Geoff hates that our tax burden is so high. He hates that the whole system in in danger of failing due to the entitlements programs. He dislikes working six months out of a year for supporting these programs that — mind you — he’s entirely against and has been long before we all started to realize what a problem they are becoming. Geoff really does experience income taxes as a sort of theft! His emotional view of what is being done to him really does feel very similar to how I’d feel if someone robbed me. So there is a legitimate sense in which taxes are theft if you experience taxes in the way Geoff does.
Adam and SilverRain, on the other hand, aren’t looking at it in this way. They point out that Geoff isn’t being ‘logical.’ Does it make sense to call ‘income taxes’ theft and not tariffs when both are a forced taking of money? What objective criteria is Geoff using to define one was theft and the other as not theft?
There is no possible cool and rational response that Geoff can give to this question because it’s an objective face that taxes (of all sorts) are unlike theft in meaningful ways. So Geoff instead starts to explain why he feels worse about income taxes then he does about tariffs because he feels tariffs would work better in maintaining his political goals.
In fact, this is the correct answer given what Geoff is really trying to say. For Geoff has written this post for the sake of explaining his personal feelings about how income taxes have come to be used and abused and how it has (given his own political views) become so at odds with what he’d like the government to be doing with his money that it really does emotionally feel (but ultimately subjectively so) like theft to him now.
I want to emphazie here that Geoff is patently correct given his point of view: Geoff really does experience taxes in such a way that they feel like theft to him. No one can possibly disprove this for the obvious reason that he’s objectively correct that he experiences taxes as a kind of theft.
But given this answer, it’s obvious that ‘rationally speaking’ Geoff hasn’t answered the question. Adam quickly points this out. Rationally speaking Geoff has done nothing to explain in what sense tariffs (a forced taking of money) is not theft while income taxes (also a forced taking of money) is.
Perception and “Who’s Right?”
So who is right? It depends on how you perceive the purpose of the original post. Adam, SilverRain, and myself are looking at it in strict rational terms and are not factoring in Geoff’s subjective experiences with taxes. Instead, we’re taking our own experience with taxes and plugging Geoff’s arguments into that (incompatible) point of view. Given this point of view, we are correct as well. Taxes will never been equivalent to theft in an objective sense.
But this is literally besides the point of the purpose of the original post and we can’t seem to see that! Geoff is expressing his feelings and doing so accurately. Given his political views and situation taxes emotionally come off so much like theft that calling them ‘theft’ very accurate reflects how he feels about being forced to pay them.
I hope people will not think that by calling one side ‘rational’ and one side ’emotional’ that I’m somehow downplaying Geoff’s point of view and playing up Adam’s and SilverRain’s (and my own). The truth is that from a certain point of view the opposing viewpoint is really rooted in emotion as well. Using myself as an example, I simply do not have the visceral response to how taxes are being used for entitlements that Geoff does. My ‘lack of emotion’ is in fact an ’emotion’ in and of itself. I am relatively conservative so I’m not in favor of raising entitlements and I believe we’re going to have to dramatically cut them back to avoid bankrupting the government. Austerity is in our future… or bust!
So the issue here isn’t a case of one party being rational and the other being emotional, per se. I feel quite comfortable in saying I’m even bit driven by emotion here as anyone else and I suspect that true of all of us in various measures. But given that lack of emotion on this specific issue, Geoff really has no means of conveying to us his real meaning — for his real meaning is his subjective (but very real) experience.
Rationality is the limit of what we can convey objectively. And even then, it’s often quite hard, for human beings are not primarily rational. Unless I actually first experience what Geoff experiences, I’m not likely to ever really ‘get it’ when Geoff labels taxes as a kind of theft.
But suppose I’m Skyler or Rame instead of myself. They clearly seem to ‘get it’ when Geoff refers to taxes as a kind of theft. I would suggest this is because they have had that required visceral experience required to ‘get it.’ (Note the similarities here to the Mormon concept of ‘testimony’ and then refer back to SilverRains quote above.)
In short, the whole refrain of ‘Income Taxes are Theft” is really a way of expressing in group how one feels about a number of related issues: i.e. how we’re taxed, how much we’re taxed, and how the taxes are used. It’s a shorthand of sorts for something much much larger. If you are not hooked into that shorthand, you literally can’t understand what Geoff is talking about.
In large measure, I am only now understanding this precisely because Geoff actually does do a good job (in comments) of explaining the larger issues he’s really thinking about. I have to take those comments, allow myself to try to ‘feel’ (in so far as that is even possible) how I might feel if I viewed that world that way, then think about how I’d feel about taxes given that viewpoint. Only then can I (to some small measure) ‘get it.’
Objectively Speaking: Taxes Are Not Theft
Are taxes theft? Objectively speaking, of course not. We do not decide something is something based on a partial match of criteria or based on mere analogy. A dog is not a cat because both have fur. And a plane is not a bird just because its is like a bird. A CPU is not a brain because it’s analogous to a brain. Indeed, a house cat isn’t even a lion because both are felines.
So long as there are meaningful differences between taxes and robbery, the refrain of ‘taxes are theft’ will never be objectively true and will always serve only as a shorthand for other unstated subjective experiences.
But I do think I see where Geoff and others are coming from now. It must be absolutely terribly frustrating to have to work 6 months out of the year for governmental spending that is primarily spent on items you entirely disagree with. So telling me ‘taxes are theft’ does have the potential to communicate the feelings involved if supplemented with some heavy effort to make sure I eventually realize in what sense the refrain is intend.
But What About Effectiveness?
However, there is a point I like to mention to Geoff and others: there was a heavy cost for such rhetorical shorthand.
By insisting on calling taxes a sort of ‘theft’ you are losing those that that aren’t experiencing taxes the way you are experiencing them. I mean let’s admit it: the original arguments being made in the original post have all largely been lost in an completely unnecessary discussion about whether or not ‘taxes are theft.’
I personal haven’t had the sort of visceral reaction to taxes Geoff has. It’s to be expected that when I hear ‘taxes are theft’ I’m going to assume Geoff means it in the literal sense of there being no meaningful differences between taxes and theft. And since that is objectively not true, my natural desire will be to question or debate him on that issue rather than the one he originally intended. (Worse yet, when we ask if the refrain is intended ‘literally’ we’re told ‘yes’ so we can’t claim it’s all just a misunderstanding on our part. Though even if it was, it’s still a misunderstanding that must be dealt with if one’s desire is to communicate.)
The cost of claiming taxes as equivalent to theft was high! For the fact is that this entire ‘debate’ was all between a bunch of fairly hardcore conservatives. If half of hardcore conservatives reacted badly to ‘taxes being theft’ how will moderates and liberal reacted to it? Worse yet, they’ll be right to see that it’s rationally not true! It’s a phrase that causes people to fail to understand the rest of what you are trying to say! And even worse yet, this phrase is unnecessary to make the argument.
In short, the real underlying message of the post failed to make it out of the gate due to the use of an rationally unnecessary phrase. How else to honestly describe an argument that can’t make it past several people that basically agree with you!
So here is the question: what was the purpose of the original post? Was it meant to convey Geoff’s feelings and frustrations? Or was it meant to convince others that might currently disagree with him?
It seems to me that both of these are entirely legitimate reasons to make a blog post. Let’s face it. One of the main reasons we blog is so that we can express ourselves. We aren’t always looking to convince the world. Often all we want is to find others that feel the way we feel. (Isn’t that why The Bloggernacle” exists in the first place? To say nothing of the DAMU community!) And the posts Geoff made were largely successful in these ways! In fact, the very fact that I’m writing this post shows just how successful he was. I literally ‘got how he feels’ in a way I don’t think I understood before. In fact, he successfully got me to think about it for a several hours and finally spend a few more hours writing this post about it.
But if the purpose of the post is to convince others that don’t already agree with one’s point of view, this post was severely hindered by the ‘taxes are theft’ rhetoric. And the reason it was a hinderance rather than a help was because it’s subjectively true based on personal experience rather than objectively true based on objective criteria.