Sunday, August 12, 2012

What do we owe, and to whom?

One of those Obama moments that people have jumped on, in order to score political points, was the "you didn't build that" remark. (A quick google search reveals plenty of links on the subject.) In context, here's what he said:
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business -- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don't do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.
Conservative pundits have tried to blatantly twist the "you didn't build that" comment beyond its original meaning--they want to imply that Obama meant that your own personal achievements are actually the achievements of society rather than you, the individual. This is a false implication, but there are some true implications which demand some sort of intellectual response. Many libertarians have done a great job of responding already, but I wanted to take some time and think about the core issue underlying this big to-do.

The take-away message from Obama's remark is that we all owe something for the services given to us by the public. So the question we need to deal with is, what do we owe, and to whom? Debt is a moral concept, relating to how we ought to exist with our fellow human beings; it is therefore not an idea that can be deduced from mere facts. The observation that other people helped me in my endeavors does not settle the question of whether I owe them something, nor does the observation that I have put in a lot of effort into my own endeavors. We will need to wrestle with some basic ideas about how we ought to relate to one another, rather than appeal to blind prejudice and desires based on instinct. For example, it is natural that I should want to keep things which I currently perceive to be mine; it is also natural that I should want others who appear to have more than everyone else to share with the rest of us. These instincts come into conflict in any society, and such conflicts can only be mediated by our morals.

Rather than delve too deeply into the broad moral question, my main goal here is to challenge one presupposition commonly held in our culture, which relates mainly to the question, "To whom do I owe?" It is undoubtedly the case that many people help me along my life's journey. Thus, there are potentially many people to whom I owe something. (It is even possible that I owe something to everyone in the world, given that they have refrained from doing any harm to me personally. For such a minimal "contribution," however, I think it natural to suppose that all I owe them in return is not hurting them!)

The question is, what does it mean that I owe something to society, and if this sentiment has any concrete meaning, is that meaning best expressed in the form of taxation by government?

Let me get the first part of this question out of the way by saying yes, I do think there is some meaningful sense in which we "owe society" a great debt for all that we achieve in each of our individual lifetimes. However, I'm afraid this sense is far from concrete. Every time we ponder the many people invovled in creating something as simple as a pencil, every time we walk through the streets of the world's great cities, every time we read the great recorded thoughts of human beings, every time we thank our parents for how much they have done for us and think how many generations of parents came before them, we realize in all of these things that we would not even exist without some seemingly miraculous order which binds human beings together in a system of cooperation. But this order, this miracle of human civilization, is indeed abstract--it is beyond our grasp, both in that it comes down to us through the gradual progression of cultural evolution and in that we can never repay this "civilization" directly (there's no "it" at all).

Politics, however, is often the art of connecting very abstract concepts to particular persons or parties, so that politicians can channel public reverence for those concepts into support for their campaigns. Thus the very abstract concept society becomes tied to the very concrete entity which is government. Paying taxes becomes synonmyous with paying one's debt to society. This is something of a superstition, however, and like many superstitions it is rather destructive.

Civilization exists because each of us individually bases her life on certain moral principles. Government is not the originator of these morals, and if it were required that government should be immediately present in all human interactions in order to regulate our behavior, civilization would utterly collapse. Most problems in ordinary life are solved by parents' natural for for their children, people caring about their neighbors, passers by stopping to give directions or call for help, businesses wanting to make a good impression on their customers, and members of a community wanting to be seen as responsible citizens. The resulting moral order is called spontaneous order because there is no one steering the ship; it is enough that individual acts morally, without knowing what the whole of society looks like as a result. Government is only necessary when certain individuals violate this order.

It is telling that most major world religions have some account of ethics being passed down either from on high or from ancient wisdom. Ironic as it sounds to modern ears, it is this reverence for what is passed down, rather than what is created by humans like us, that makes us free. Indeed, freedom is being liberated from the will of other human beings like ourselves. We can only be free, then, if we are able to appeal to principles which are higher than any human will. If a society has such a set of principles, then each member of that society can be free to do as she likes, if only she generally abides by those principles.

The danger in every democracy is the temptation to abandon our reverence for received wisdom in favor of what is called the will of the people. This concept often acts as an excuse for us to abandon the morals which allow civilization to function, contrary as they are to our instincts. By embracing this concept we endeavor to create a government which is not the product of our moral principles, but rather a brute assertion of will. Thus government becomes not so much an arbiter of justice as a channel through which every person's "voice" may be "heard." I vote, therefore I am.

The "tyranny of the majority" is a very real danger. A majority of people might decide democratically to strip an outclassed minority of basic rights which those in the majority enjoy freely. But the dangers are much deeper than this. Once the public has accepted the concept of government as an expression of collective will rather than an arbiter of justice, there is no limit to how much we owe government. All of our reverence for those abstract concepts, such as equality, justice, mercy, peace, and prosperity, becomes directed toward the government. In religious terms, we become idolaters.

The will of the people is a concept which has no concrete manifestation. Yes, we can vote democratically on yes or no questions, such as, "Should abortion be legal?" or, "Should Barack Obama be our president from 2013 to 2016?" But collective desires such as giving everyone affordable health care or giving every child a good education are not satiable through collective decision-making. The only way civilization was ever able to achieve such things in the first place was through a system of moral order which grants each individual certain rights and responsibilities, but can never predict particular outcomes.

Once this much is truly understood and admitted, then I think we can start to debate more concretely how much we owe government. I find it generally disturbing that there seems to be no theoretical limit on how much of our income we might owe our government. If one turns to the law of the Old Testament, one of the oldest "constitutions" we have (to put it anachronistically), we find a clear proportion established for all time: ten percent of everything. Surely there is some wisdom in a society embracing certain moral constraints on how much the government is allowed to take from any given citizen.

Nothing I have said should be taken to mean that government should never provide welfare money to its citizens, or that there is something morally desirable about certain individuals being rich to incomprehensible excess. What it does mean, however, is that when we call for the rich pay to their "fair share," we ought to consider whether we are thinking according to morals or simply according to instincts, according to a higher law or in the hopes of satisfying the will of the people.

The most desirable outcome of our democratic political process is that all individuals would be held equally accountable to a higher standard of moral principles, one which stands over and against our base desires. This requires a considerable amount of give and take. While it is just for a rich person to give to a poor person, it is also unjust for a person to steal from the rich to give to the poor. Taxation is a proper function of government, but unlimited taxation means unlimited tyranny.

Politicians and CEOs must all be held accountable to the same rules as anyone else. The main problem with which we should all be concerned as that these parties--the government and the wealthy private interests--are more often than not on the same side. While the average voter may be concerned with some preferred ideology or sense of American identity, the particular party in power seems to make no difference when it comes to handing out favors to big corporations. When all Americans can see and lament this state of affairs, then I hope we will see a much needed political revival.