Friday, July 8, 2011

The Moral Imperative of Taxation

Peter Bruegel the Elder - Greed

 "For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows." Timothy 6:10

Like any biblical passage, there can be many interpretations to the meaning of the passage above.  This particular passage has become a popular saying, reduced to the shorter, and even more generalizable, "Money is the root of all evil".   However, there are two main ways in which the phrase is likely read.

In the first, the emphasis is placed on a condemnation of greed.  Money should not be worshiped, but instead take its place behind more important things in life, such as friends or family.  To become greedy is to become enslaved by selfishness, and prone to losing sight of proper values.

The second, an extension of the first, holds not only that greed is wrong, but that it is what often drives social ill.  One man's greed, to the extent that it must be fulfilled,  becomes an issue of power over others, whom he ends up treating not as real humans whose lives he affects by his decisions, but as a sort of background noise to his ambition.  Other humans, whom he should feel compassion for, become at best uncomfortable distractions, at worst, tools to exploit.

While most people would agree with the former interpretation, it is the latter that raises the issue of social inequality as an extension of greed.  There is an implication that we all strive toward economic justice.  Yet there are many who have a vested interest in maintaining the morality of social inequality.  To return to the bible, the gospel according to Mathew 19:23 echoes Timothy, in which Jesus is claimed to say,
“Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Or maybe, "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a defense of inequality to be predicated on the interpretation of Timothy 6:10 as merely being about greed and not not about a larger social truth"!

Some would ask whether it is really true that the more the rich have, the less others have.  Surely the hard work of one individual does not result in the poverty of another.  Yet this is certainly not always so.  What if some people don't have access to the means of obtaining wealth, whether physically or because they lack the know-how.  Is their taking part in the same economic system not reinforcing their limited position?  Just because there is someone out there willing to work for peanuts, does it mean that he or she is making the most of him or herself, and not being taken advantage of by the larger system?

What would Timothy have said to this? I suppose the beauty of religious teaching is that it is ultimately about moral authority, as in doing what is right. The individual is asked to look within himself and find an integrity between his actions and his beliefs.

Of course, we are all flawed, "sinners" (in my atheistic sense), who regularly choose the less righteous path. Peter Singer speaks very well on the ethics of distance, in that saving a dying man directly before you is obvious, where as a man across an ocean is not. There is a direct correlation between concern for those less fortunate and physical proximity to their suffering.

I've seen no better illustration of this that the scene in Schindler's List, in which he, realizing that the lives of Jews had literally come down to payments rendered, looks down at his gold ring and realizes that he could have saved just one more.

I suppose this is why I cringe when calls for the rich to pay their "fair" share are so frequently reduced to mere expressions of jealousy or resentment. I think there are plenty of principled reasons why one might prefer that the rich not have their wealth taken from them in the form of taxation - government is inefficient, some programs are counter-productive, etc. I find those positions variously wrongheaded or mistaken, but they are at least only political or philosophical judgements.

The real question that the wealthy need to ask themselves is what is the point of life here on Earth? As an atheist, it may be easier for me to slide into selfish materialism, with no regard for my fellow man. But where some would say God created us in his image, and thus compels us to sacrifice for the less fortunate, I simply believe that evolution - both biologically and culturally - gave us the ability to empathize and feel compassion for fellow man.

Thus, the dying man before me is in stark contrast with my feelings of solidarity with him, and my ability to help him. Therefore morally, I am required to act. So whether I pay my taxes so that the sick may be healed, or invest all extra moneys into business, or charity, I am bounded morally to every man woman or child alive - each of their consciousnesses floating around in each of their skulls - not yet able to realize the potential that I realize in myself.

As I said before, we are all "sinners". With my $1500 how much good could I have done? The emotional, behavioral and psychological calculations we do are complex. Does the happiness the TV brings me allow more to be more productive? Did striving to have it in the first place make me work harder? In this way, do I get to consider my luxury night out a charitable contribution, in the form of future productivity. My, how we could rationalize ourselves into oblivion there!

So, I suppose, let us make these determinations individually. But let us do it within reason. I would argue that the return on investment, the ratio of productivity for monetary gain to productivity for other reasons (sense of accomplishment, security, enjoyment, etc.) bends rather limply towards personal excess. Does the man who makes an extra million for a personal yacht really need that yacht to work hard? We must remember that the wealthy have long since passed the point of needing to worry about enjoying the simple things in life. There is a reason for the term "luxury".

And again, this is discussion is twofold: it asks a moral question of the individual, but it asks a moral question of society as well. We must, as citizens of a democratic government, ask ourselves what we think is fair for our members to contribute to our vision of the common good - whether military, roads, schools, etc. It is certainly a question that requires looking at individuals and their wealth, and making a judgement as to what is fair for them to contribute, and thus what is fair for them to possess.

We cannot refrain from making that determination. As voting citizens, we are by definition responsible for judging our neighbors. As long as it is our duty to uphold the welfare of our state, a welfare that depends on the actions of its citizenry, we take a position by merely living within the state. We can decide to completely leave them alone, and to demand no taxes from them, but that is just as moral a position as demanding 100% of their wealth. Both have direct impact upon the state we share.

Returning to Timothy's claim, the individual morality cannot but imply a social morality. Each individual must decide for himself what is right, in terms of his brief life on this planet. But, as a citizen of a democratic state, he now must apply that morality to his neighbor, to the extent that it directly affects the business of the state.

Am I OK with my lifestyle, and the degree to which I care for my fellow man? Maybe, maybe not. That is an issue of integrity, and by no means an easy question. It is one that is asked and answered with every decision we make - or do not make - every second of the day. Yet because of the realities of governing, we must try and find our best moral position when we enter the voting booth.

And so if I, as a human, sinning man, sometimes find it difficult to act with integrity to my moral values, what effect should this have on my voting? Should I vote my morality, or my reality? For instance, I think it is wrong to make animals suffer before they die. I try and buy humane meats and dairy. But sometimes I find it hard to resist. So how should I vote? Should my voting reflect my lack of integrity, or should it reflect my aspirations?

And so when I see others living in ways in which I know - were I them - could be better spent reducing suffering and promoting liberty, should I cast judgement upon them at the ballot box? Do I have a right to hold them accountable to my own moral principles? To not do so would seem to be an expression of a lack of integrity just as profound as were I to be in their position. In my perfect world, they would either be paying taxes to government programs that guarantee access to services I deem important, or at least giving that money to charities or invest it in job-creating businesses.

But I know that doesn't happen. They do not act in accordance with my moral beliefs, with how I believe it is right to act in our state, and that all citizens ought to act in order to ensure my vision of the common good. If I have the right to ask them to be taxed at all, I ought to have the right to have them taxed at an amount I deem morally correct. Like Timothy, I can ask them to pass judgement on themselves. But as a citizen, I must pass judgement on them myself. __________________

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