Friday, March 11, 2011

George Ought to Help

A friend asked me to watch this video and respond to it:

There's nothing new here, but it is a nice, concise presentation of things that many people have said to me over the years, trying to defend the morality of selfishness. That isn't the politically correct way to put it, of course; they would rather frame it as the immorality of forcing individuals to participate in our larger society. In this particular video, the message is that it is immoral to force one person to help another.

In order to determine whether I agree with that message, I start with two test questions:

1. Do I agree with that statement?

2. Is that what is really happening, or is this a false analogy?

On the surface, I agree with the general statement - it really is immoral to force one person to help another. But something about it bothers me, so I need to dig a little deeper.

I still believe in the concept of Charity, so I'll always make my decisions about helping others with the assumption that I should do so, but forcing someone to behave charitably means that it is not, by definition, "charity" - if their gift does not come freely from within, then it is no longer charitable, but given grudgingly. And, as the video illustrates, you're left with a choice between two actions that seem wrong.

Of course, someone who behaves selfishly all the time is not a very good citizen, either. Refusing to help others - as George does here - usually leads to being shunned, so when you are in the position where you need help, you can clearly expect it to be refused in return. Maybe that's a risk George is willing to take. I note that we are painted a picture in which Oliver's need is pretty innocuous; it's not as if Oliver is portrayed as having been laid off when his bank sank under toxic assets, and it isn't as if his children require life-saving medical treatment. It seems rather easier to imagine George saying no to a guy who wants to send his kids to a swanky school than he would to a guy with more urgent needs. I feel a little manipulated by this.

But for the question at hand, it doesn't matter; none of that is being debated in this video. Instead, it sticks to the very clearly defined moral situation in which an individual is compelled against his will to provide financial assistance to someone else. We are intended to agree with that message, and to draw the comparison between this small scale situation and our current government, with an eye to suggesting "better" ideas about government. Those alternative ideas may offer a better way to test my first question; which brings us to the suggestions at the end of the video inviting us to consider a list of alternatives to a coercive police state forcing participation in charitable activity.

Voluntaryism, (also called voluntarism, though it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with "volunteering" for things) is a philosophy according to which all forms of human association should be voluntary as far as possible. In other words, if George doesn't want for there to be an association (here consisting of tuition money) between him and Oliver, he shouldn't be forced to be a part of it. Consequently, voluntaryism opposes the initiation of aggressive force or coercion, which leads us to the non-aggression principle.

The non-aggression principle is an ethical stance which asserts that "aggression" is inherently illegitimate. "Aggression" is defined as the "initiation" of physical force against persons or property, the threat of such, or fraud upon persons or their property. The video clearly wants you to emphasize the first part of the definition, but I want to draw your attention to the inclusion of Fraud. That will be important in a minute.

So, all of that still looks pretty good. I do agree that it is immoral to use force or the threat of force to compel someone to perform what should be a charitable act. Helping someone else should be something that is agreed to by both parties - the Helper and the "Helpee", if you will. I do wonder how should that work under "voluntaryism", actually. What is the proper mechanism for those in need to find willing helpers? What is the moral implication of leaving the vulnerable as prey to those who would exploit them? Or to religious organizations with which the vulnerable would not otherwise voluntarily associate? It seems an impartial third party would be needed in any event.

Well... maybe those are details that can be worked out by someone else.

What about that second question? Is anyone in America being forced with violence or the threat of violence to give money to help others? The video presents this as a foregone conclusion, and uses the classic, faceless authoritarian boogie-men to get that point across.

It *sounds* obvious, doesn't it? We hear about famous people going to jail for tax evasion all the time - Wesley Snipes, Willie Nelson, Spiro Agnew. And there are other stories of less famous people in the news - like this guy you've never heard of and this high dollar/high profile arrest clearly intended to make an example of someone making a defiant point. Heck, Tax Attorneys - like this guy - are all over the Internet and TV telling you to watch out.

Clearly, that is both "force" and the "threat of force" - things which I've already agreed are immoral. If the government is initiating that kind of aggression against its citizens, that is wrong! But there was another clause in that definition of non-agression: remember when I told you that Fraud would be important?

You see, it is not actually against the law to owe money to the IRS. (We could quibble over whether the IRS has a legal foundation or whether you agree that a government should have the power to tax in the first place - but that is also beyond the scope of this video.) The crime is not "keeping your money" - the crime is committing fraud by either not filing at all or by lying on your return. Maybe you think that is hair-splitting, but it is an important distinction that the makers of the video have ignored. After all, following the definitions of "voluntaryism" and "non-aggression", every tax payer either explicitly or tacitly agrees to remain a citizen year after year, and only the fraud violating that voluntary agreement is punished - consequences agreed upon through due process, and enforced with due process.

The point is that the "initiation" of the "aggression" is NOT happening by the action of the U.S. Government - it is happening when the citizen violates an agreement into which he voluntarily entered.

Okay, but what about that animated picture where the money is sucked out of George's pocket against his will and given to Oliver's family? Why should the majority be able to force the rest of us to "redistribute our wealth"? I did not agree to allow that to happen!

There are two bitter pills that the would be anarchist or libertarian has to swallow here: one is "representative government" and the other is the concept of "fungibility".

Obviously, there is a lot of room for argument about what our elected officials are allowed to do. This very conversation is evidence of that, and it is why we have agreed to a Constitution spelling out the rules they have to play by. That document was written with the intention of allowing room for interpretation in order to protect both the will of the majority and the rights of the minority, which is why the framers used words like "due process" and "reasonable" all over the place. But at the end of the day, that Constitution every citizen has at least tacitly agreed to support and abide by gives your elected Congress the power to decide how and when to tax and spend.

(If you think those rules should change or be interpreted differently, you are welcome to enter into all kinds of "voluntary associations" to try and get that done, by the way.)

And that is where "fungibility" comes in. Because money is fungible, the chain between George and Oliver is broken. There is no way to determine whether the money paying for Oliver's childrens' tuition is George's, any more than it is possible to tell how much of the money going to maintain the stretch of I-95 George uses to get to work came from Oliver's taxes. When you look at the breakdowns of the U.S. Federal budget on display at sites like What We Pay For, and you get all bent out of shape over the $3.50 that the U.S. Government ripped from your pocket under threat of force you voluntarily rendered to your duly authorized government to support the Corporation for Public Broadcasting... it isn't necessarily your $3.50 that was handed over to them.

So no: I don't think that the analogy presented in this video is correct. Using the concepts of "voluntaryism" and "non-aggression" as the basis for answering the question, I have to say that there is nothing here to object to.

(And if you're trying to stay out of trouble with the IRS, here is some advise for preventing IRS tax debt. Nothing about arming and provisioning your compound, but plenty about planning and doing the basic paperwork that you voluntarily agree to by remaining a citizen.)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Thanks but No Thanks

I heard there were some budget cuts a'coming, so I whipped out my favorite new website, What We Pay For, to see just how much those cuts were going to save me. I plugged in my approximate income level, and took a look at the breakdown of how much of my tax bill goes for each of the things I heard mentioned in the news, on Twitter, or in conversation over the last year or so. Totally unscientific cherry-picking, I know, but here's what I found, anyway:

(Note: If you go to the site, you can see 2009, 2010, and 2011 projected figures; these are the 2010 figures.)

My Total Share of the Federal Budget: $25062.00

Cuts I heard proposed:

Corporation for Public Broadcasting: $3.52
Children's Health Insurance Fund: $94
Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC): $50.51
Administration for Children and Families (includes Head Start): $359.30

Savings: $507.33

Why did I pick these out? Because they all benefited my family at some point in the last decade. When I got out of the Air Force in 2001, the job market was miserable. It took years for my wife and I to both find jobs that would allow us to pay down the debt to creditors and family that we accumulated during my time in service and that horrible transition. We had no choice but to lean on these programs, and our goal all along was to get on our feet as quickly as possible.

I owe these programs, and whatever bogus studies you can pull out showing them to be "ineffective", the fact that they helped me and my family means that they were not, and are not, ineffective. Inefficient, maybe - but that means adjusting rules and oversight, not cutting programs that keep people like us from falling too deep in the hole to recover.

Somehow, cutting this $507 off my bill doesn't seem like a good deal.

Here's a good chunk of my bill, too:

Dept. of Defense Procurement: $936.18
(Under that is: Aircraft Procurement, Air Force: $94.98)
Defense Health Program (includes TriCare): $212.45
Family Housing: $15.79
Military Personnel: $1088.56
(Under that: Military Personnel, Air Force: $194.45)

Again, I'm just cherry-picking stuff that I can relate to; I find it interesting that I'm still paying for TriCare, and that I pay slightly less than 1% of an airman's salary every year. Too bad there's no easy way to see what we pay for the contractors who were supposed to replace these airmen as the military was "streamlined" over the last decade.

These are also - mostly - things that I don't mind paying for, because I feel like I'm paying something back. Most of these expenses are things that benefited me while I was a servicemember - most. But unlike with the social programs, it's what you can't see in the Defense budget that bothers me.

We've all heard horror stories about procurement - whether we paid attention or not. Some problems are famous (like the development of the Joint Strike Fighter), and some are elusive. In the name of security, it's hard to pin down how much of the Navy's hostage computer network falls under this Procurement pot, so we can't even figure out how much of that $936 might be going to HP for sub-standard equipment and service.

In fact, because of loose rules regarding oversight of defense contractors, we may never know how much has been wasted. We do know that this is not a new trend.

I don't know where I picked it up, but I sometimes refer to my taxes as "paying my dues to be an American." I'm not exaggerating - I needed these programs, and I want to make sure they are there for others who will need them. Considering what we got out of WIC alone, we have a lot of "repayment" to do - if the Congress will allow us to continue to do so.