I’ve recently been reading Penn Jillette’s lovely book ‘God No!’ It’s meant to be about atheism but he actually spends most of the book talking about show business, freedom, how much he loves his family and the joy of life. It’s a wonderful book and I highly recommend it.
I really like Penn and I agree with him on a large number of things. But where we differ is that he feels that it is wrong of the government to raise taxes to help the poor.
Well, I am sorry Penn, and I’d love to be able to discuss these issues with you some time, but the only way one can believe that is if they’ve never seen real poverty.
The arguments against raising taxes to try and help the poor fall into two basic categories:
1) It won’t help.
2) It’s wrong to force someone to help someone else.
The first argument is essentially that human beings respond to incentives. If you provide people with food, shelter and so on their incentive to succeed will be very low and thus you will inevitably get more unemployment and people who leech off the state.
To support this claim one can cite statistics that show that countries with larger social welfare systems almost always have higher unemployment than the United States, which has relatively little social support, and this is certainly true.
I’m going to leave aside the fact that slightly higher unemployment and much higher taxes seem a small price to pay for the higher standard of living, longer life expectancy, lower infant mortality, higher literacy and numeracy rates, greater social mobility, universal healthcare, longer vacations and lower crime rate that these countries enjoy, compared to the US, but that’s not what this post is about.
The first point of view I’m promoting today is that questions of incentives are secondary to the basics of life.
Sure, if you give people too much for free you reduce their incentives. But without food, water, shelter, healthcare and education incentives don’t mean jack shit. And when you think about it for a few moments this becomes obvious.
For example I’m from South Africa (shocking I know) and in my country the majority of people are in grinding poverty. Many are in poverty so extreme that even free education is too expensive (because free education still requires you to buy food, transport, stationery etc. and they literally don’t have money for that). The idea that what these people need is not more help but more incentive is so stupid that it’s almost hard to type.
Protip: many of these people are employed, at least in some capacity. But the cost of labour is so low that even having a “job” isn’t enough to provide for their kids. The problem here is not that people are leeching. The problem is that they are working their asses off and still not getting anywhere.
One can of course argue that the poor in the US are nowhere near as poverty-stricken as those in the poor parts of Africa, and this is quite true.
But if we accept that there is a level of poverty where intervention is the right thing to do then that opens the door to discussing where that level is, how much intervention is needed and how much is helpful. That’s all I’m going for.
The second argument is essentially that everyone has a right to decide for themselves what is done with their property and thus it is wrong of the government to take your property away (in the form of high taxes) just because they think they know how to help people best. It is quite a solid argument in many respects.
Indeed, it is felt by many who call themselves “libertarians” (and some, like Penn, who actually are libertarians) that it is wrong to help the poor by taking other people’s money away by force. Penn’s point of view is that it is right and good to help others in any way you can but it is wrong to infringe on the rights of some people in order to help other people.
Helping people is great. But forcing someone to help someone else is a violation of personal liberty.
One of the reasons Penn holds this belief so strongly might be because he honestly believes that people are good and that if we just give people a chance to be charitable there will be more than enough charity to take care of those who genuinely need help.
I also believe that people are good, but I think I have a better understanding of what this means than Penn does. Yes, people want to help others but it is built into our biology that we often won’t. The poor responses to many worthy charities bear this out. People will feel terrible for the suffering people of the Sudan but they won’t actually do anything about it, unless it is made easy for them, and they receive some sort of pay off.
After all, as libertarians and “libertarians” have pointed out above: people respond to incentives. If the incentives are wrong they won’t respond.
And I’d also like to point out that the citizens of countries with higher tax rates that I mentioned above tend to contribute a far larger percentage of their wealth to charity than US citizens do. So the theory that less taxation means more philanthropy falls down at the hurdle marked “reality”.
But there are more meaningful objections as well.
You see friends while all rights are important not all rights are created equal. My right to free speech does not extend to doing full-volume karaoke at 3am for example.
Or, for those of you who’ve heard me karaoke, ever.
And the problem with being against taxes to help the poor is that you are basically saying that the right of a small number of rich people to spend all their money how they wish, is more important than the right of a large number of poor people to be alive.
Well, sorry, but that’s bullshit. There is just no way that one person’s right to do what they want with every penny they have is more important than someone else’s right to life.
This should not be controversial.
A counter argument might be that we could spend all the money of all the rich people and still not solve the world’s problems and we’d have completely fucked the economy.
This is most definitely true, so it’s a good thing I’m not suggesting that. I’m not saying we should take all the money or that we should try and make the world perfect, both are bad ideas. I am saying that we can do far more good by putting high taxes on the rich, than we can by leaving them off.
There are of course issues of corruption, inefficiency, learned helplessness and other practical problems. But, none of those contradict my stance. They don’t mean we should stop doing things, they mean we should do things better.
I mean if Warren Buffet and Bill Gates believe that the rich should pay much higher taxes, and that this money can be spent intelligently, then that’s a pretty strong indication that there is something in this.
To drive the point home let me unleash my one word argument against Ayn Rand: “orphans”.
You see under Rand’s bullshit ideology it would be morally wrong to tax people in order to feed and clothe orphans. When I raise this issue with “objectivists” (LOL!) the sane ones try and pretend that everyone would spontaneously shower every orphan with everything they needed to have a fair start in life (and this from a group who feels that charity is also morally wrong) and the insane ones say “yes, they’d all die, so what?”
Man I wish I was kidding.
My point is that it is transparently obvious that sometimes the government needs to force people to do the right thing. This sucks, and I wish we were different, but right now this is the reality.
Yes, this is a violation of personal liberty. But that is less important than the lives of the people being saved. “Give me liberty or give me death” doesn’t work when it’s one group that gets the liberty and another that gets the death!
And before you ask: yes, I consider myself one of the wealthy and yes I would support an increase in my taxes if I felt the money would be well spent. I am currently taxed at about 20% and I think I could definitely do alright at 30%. This would, after a lot of maths, give me roughly $1000 a month, and I’m fine with that.
Because as pure as Penn Jillette’s motives are the reality is that there are tens of millions of people living in poverty who will never escape unless they are thrown a line. And there ain’t no way to throw that line other than taxing the rich, a lot.
[Standard Disclaimer: this post was entirely my own opinion and was not paid for in any way, directly or otherwise, by anyone or anything that stands to gain in any way from the ideas expressed herein.]